Kempner: Amazon, here’s $1 billion. Now, bring Atlanta 50,000 jobs


Amazon could make the most gargantuan of deliveries to metro Atlanta. We just have to give the online giant encouragement. Like maybe way more than $1 billion.

The company that regularly awes consumers and debones competitors recently announced it is searching for a place in North America to put a second headquarters. The site might eventually include 50,000 algorithmically optimized employees, with average compensation topping $100,000.

Apparently Amazon is so big and innovative that it can no longer be contained by its mere 33-building base in Seattle, a city the company has squeezed like a lemon for every drop of tech talent, affordable housing and traffic capacity.

For HQ2, as it is calling the project, Amazon has carefully choreographed what it surely hopes will be a crazed bidding war among communities.

Seattle Time columnist warned that for the winning city, Amazon “is about to detonate a prosperity bomb in your town,” with both economic goodies and painful side effects, like soaring rents and an overabundance of guys from a male-dominated industry.

Georgia should be careful, of course. We should reasonably assess …

Ahh, who are we kidding? Amazon, we love you! Won’t you pretty please pick Atlanta, Hotlanta, Too-busy-to-hate-lanta?

We’ll make it worth your while.

By the power not vested in me, I hereby give you a runway at Hartsfield-Jackson-Amazon Atlanta International Airport. Also, you can have Georgia Tech. And every Friday we’ll deliver every local Amazon employee a free King of Pops peach ice treat.

R.K. Sehgal, a former Georgia commissioner of Industry, Trade and Tourism, (who by the way called my ideas “brilliant”) told me “You have to put lust in their hearts.”

Amazon, we are doing our sexy dance.

To land Amazon we need to provide more than “meat and potatoes,” Sehgal said. Lots of workers? Business friendly? Top universities? Big airport? Tax breaks? Free land? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah

“Give them something they haven’t asked for,” he said.

Sehgal’s idea: offer Amazon free or subsidized college education for the children of every Atlanta employee (beyond Georgia’s HOPE scholarship). Put a university branch on the new corporate campus.

Subsidize the K-12 private school educations for their younger kids, he said. Is that allowed under state law? (I suspect the kids would prefer my free ice pop idea.)

Also, get the CEOs of the 50 biggest companies in Georgia to welcome Amazon with a signed full-page ad in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (I swear, this was his idea.)

In total, Sehgal said, promise $1 billion in incentives if Amazon brings a guaranteed 50,000 new jobs to Georgia.

He wasn’t kidding. In fact, he may have been low balling.

Georgia’s automatic, off-the-shelf job tax breaks already might exceed half a billion dollars for a project that size.

The state of Washington ponied up $8.7 billion in incentives to encourage Boeing a few years back. Too bad Boeing apparently more recently cut jobs there.

Such special breaks gives hives to people like Greg LeRoy. He’s executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit research group on economic development, and a frequent critic of fat incentives for corporate relos and expansions.

“Taxpayers should watch their wallets,” he said.

He told me he worries that a 10-figure deal for Amazon is possible.

“Incentives almost never decide where a company decides to expand or relocate,” he said.

Instead, a “not very long list of places” will meet Amazon’s criteria for where it can scoop up enough executive talent. Atlanta, he said, is likely on the list.

“It absolutely is going to be driven by where they can get the brains they need.”

And what brains they need will depend on what business specialties they focus on out of HQ2, he said. Amazon is an increasingly broad company, from buying Whole Foods to selling pretty much everything online to offering cloud computing services to making movies. Amazon won’t stop there.

Whatever community invests in HQ2 won’t have to be betting that Amazon will retain its competitive edge in one particular industry. Amazon has figured out how to innovate in virtually anything it jumps into.

Amazon is asking communities to turn in bids by Oct. 19. It set up a site laying out the parameters of what it wants.

The company’s demands read like what a lot of people might desire for their community: a locale where people “enjoy living, recreational opportunities, educational opportunities and an overall high-quality of life.” What’s not to love?

Amazon stressed that its wants to be among a diverse population, it is committed to “sustainability” and it’s a big fan of renewable energy. (Are you listening, Georgia Power?)

It said it expects direct access to mass transit. (Hello, Georgia legislators, county leaders and transportation tax voters?)

It wants stats on traffic congestion. Uggh. This is where we’re going to have to do some fast talking. “That? Oh, that’s going to come out with a quick buffing. Hey, look over here at this really big airport.”

Amazon seems to put the heaviest weight on being in a community that has a big, technology-minded, well-educated workforce, a “stable and business friendly environment and tax structure,” strong universities and a willingness to supply rich incentives.

I suspect Atlanta and Georgia will come off well on the first three; we’ll have to search our souls and checkbooks on that last one.

Others seem to think we have a decent shot.

A columnist for Bloomberg dissected Amazon’s list and concluded that Atlanta is one of just six cities likely to fit the criteria. (Though the writer, who is based in Atlanta, also questioned whether Georgia, Texas and North Carolina might get dinged for state legislators’ “flirtations with anti-gay laws under the guise of ‘religious liberty’ (and anti-trans ‘bathroom bills’).”

CNN focused on eight contenders including Atlanta. The New York Times had Atlanta in a list of the top nine, but then knocked us out for traffic issues, before ultimately settling on Denver. (This one struck me as odd. Amazon already has a western base. Wouldn’t there be a more powerful draw for HQ2 to be somewhere near the East Coast, offering a quicker gateway to this side of the country and Europe?)

Government incentives doled out especially heavily for a single for-profit business is a form of picking favorites. It’s corporate welfare. The rationale for them is sometimes weak, particularly with giveaways for new sports stadiums. There are lots of other public needs that could benefit from the immediate infusion of government money.

But, hey, we’re talking about Amazon.

It can exponentially increase our tech standing and economics faster than you can say, “Alexa, send a bucket of Georgia-made ice pops to Jeff Bezos. Put it on my credit card.”

I need to start a sign-up sheet of Atlantans willing to invite the Amazon CEO over for dinner.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these columns:

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