Kempner: How Cobb, Gwinnett and N. Fulton lost 50,000 Amazon jobs

It’s probably too late for most of us in metro Atlanta’s biggest suburbs to get off our fannies and make Amazon love us enough.

Too bad: 50,000 jobs would have been wondrous for Cobb, Gwinnett, much of north Fulton and most of the other communities out here. That’s just the latest price of our dithering on creating and paying for serious public transit.

Seattle-based Amazon is conducting a very public search for where to put a second headquarters and a bunch of high-paying jobs. It’s the mother lode of economic development projects.

I’m betting that sites in the city of Atlanta and maybe a spot or two in DeKalb County will be top national contenders. (UPDATE: Atlanta is in Amazon’s Top 20.)

We’ve got a really nice package, if you know what I mean: a massive airport, Georgia Tech (aka the smart-people factory), gazillions of tech, business and logistics veterans (many of them in the burbs), big highways, affordable costs, a diverse population, stuff to do and business-friendly governments willing to pay corporate welfare to win jobs.

But embedded in the list of what Amazon says it is looking for is a good-news/bad-news dilemma for many of our suburbs.

Good news: It’s willing to consider both urban and suburban locations. (That’s a relief for suburbs fretting that cities have become the new sexy for corporate relocations.)

Bad news: Amazon insists on mass transit, which it defines as “direct access to rail, train, subway/metro, bus routes.”

The city of Atlanta and DeKalb have such access.

But in Cobb, Gwinnett and many of our other suburbs “mass transit” is more like “minimal transit,” often a few bus routes with limited operating schedules. That’s likely to be a fatal flaw for those hoping they could land Amazon in the deep burbs.

It’s an iffy proposition to guess how Amazonian leaders will weigh different proposals from metro areas. But what the heck.

Amazon, a company Jeff Bezos considered naming “Relentless,” is all about looking forward. It can’t, though, unlearn what it’s been through in Seattle.

In 2010, the company had about 5,000 employees in downtown Seattle, I’m told. Within seven years it has added another 35,000-plus there. That easily dwarfs even the combined total from Atlanta’s biggest trophy job announcements in recent years: NCRMercedes-BenzState Farm, Pulte, Worldpay, Athenahealth, HoneywellAccenture and Anthem.

Seattle has struggled to supply enough tech workers, office buildings, affordable housing and capacity for commuters in the Amazon wave.

It has built 20 miles of a light rail system, and plans to nearly triple that. Metro Seattle voters approved tax hikes last year for a $54-billion transit push over the next 25 years. That, too, dwarfs what Georgia and local officials have promised for new metro Atlanta transportation funding.

So I called Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Commute Seattle, a government-funded nonprofit that works with business on transportation.

“I could not imagine (Amazon leaders) wanting to experience again a city that is not fully prepared to get their employees to work without mass transit,” he said.

Hopkins told me he’s specifically talking about rail.

Well, you know, leaders in Gwinnett are contemplating asking voters a year from now whether they’d be willing to tax themselves to pay for more transit. If it passes, big express buses using special stations and dedicated lanes could be rolling in five to seven years, I’m told. North Fulton is also considering its options, and Cobb leaders are talking more seriously about getting the state to help push for more robust regional transit solutions.

“I don’t think Amazon has the patience for that,” Hopkins said.

Some metro Atlanta suburban leaders and boosters are holding out hope, nonetheless.

“Gwinnett has mass transit, and we have a real plan — not a hope — for mass transit expansion,” said Nick Masino, the economic development chief at Partnership Gwinnett.

Plus, Masino said, many of the tech workers Amazon will need already live in the suburbs. “The decision Amazon is going to make is about talent, not rail lines.”

In Cobb, Amazon’s interest in mass transit has heightened existing concerns in the business community about worsening traffic.

“It’s bigger than anything Cobb can do by itself. It needs to be a collective regional effort in order to solve it,” said Gary Bottoms, chairman of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash favors holding a transit funding vote in Gwinnett, which was being contemplated long before Amazon’s hunt for a second headquarters.

She’s also cautious. “Economic development is a marathon, not a sprint,” she told me. “I don’t see it as healthy to twist ourselves out of shape” over one company’s plans.

This isn’t just up to politicians. We stew in traffic but at the polls, voters have defeated chances to tax themselves more to expand transit. (Remember the TSPLOST debacle of 2012? )

Amazon has a whole nation to choose from. It doesn’t have to consider almosts and pretty-good matches from communities that promise to try harder in the future. Amazon succeeds because it is relentlessly impatient to get where it’s going.

But we shouldn’t look at mass transit as something to do for Amazon.

The inordinate amount of time we spend in our cars is bad for our sanity and our economic well being, regardless of whether Amazon chooses us and the billions of dollars in government incentives I’m sure we’ll offer.

This isn’t just a suburban issue. There won’t be enough tech and other workers living in the city of Atlanta to fulfill our region’s economic dreams.

A booming intown eventually will need more access to suburbanites than our current feeble transit connections and overloaded interstates can supply.

As painful as it will be, it’s time to get off our bums, open our wallets and pay for something better.


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, including these columns:

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