Opinion: What’s good for Amazon is good for the gander

Jan 19, 2018

Amazon this past week eliminated 218 cities from its HQ2 sweepstakes, and Atlanta wasn’t one of them. Instead, Atlanta made the 20-city “short list” of candidates still in the hunt for a $5 billion investment and 50,000 high-paying jobs.

Celebration is not only premature but a bit unseemly. There’s a long way to go, and it would have been shocking had Atlanta not made this cut. In football terms, it’d be like Alabama touting its inclusion in the preseason rankings. At this point, all Atlantans can say is at least we’re not Detroit. Or Charlotte.

Speaking of rankings, this list isn’t one. The cities were listed in alphabetical order, which is like the College Football Playoff Committee releasing its list in order of mascot size. It’s nice anytime you’re listed first, as Georgia’s alphabetically advantaged capital was, but what you really want is to be No. 1 at the end.

So the work is just beginning. Emissaries from Amazon will soon scout the potential locations, sizing up their strengths and weaknesses.

This may be the point at which you start to get a little queasy at the thought of opening up the state treasury to attract a single company, no matter how large (although a recent AJC poll suggested the prospect of offering Amazon as much as $1 billion to come here doesn’t faze Georgians, whether they live near Atlanta or not). If so, keep reading.

Landing Amazon would be a big deal. It might even be worth all the money state officials are prepared to throw at the company. But the real opportunity here is to concentrate minds on what needs to be done in Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia to attract and sustain growth well beyond what Amazon would bring.

When I worked in Brussels, seat of the European Union, there was a line of thought that most of the good new members accomplished by joining was in meeting the requirements for entrance. That is, a nation would be better off having made the prescribed reforms to open its markets to cross-border trade, limit its fiscal profligacy, clamp down on public corruption, and so on, even if it were for some reason denied membership in the end. What it got from EU membership after joining paled in comparison. (Britain is something of a test case for this theory as it negotiates its exit from the EU.)

We might find the same is true in the case of Amazon. If beefing up transportation infrastructure including transit will help attract jobs, it ought to make sense even if Amazon goes elsewhere. Some thoughtful people question whether Atlanta and its near suburbs can offer enough affordable housing to handle 50,000 new Amazonians. Well, that’ll be a challenge no matter what, given that the region is projected to add more than 1 million jobs by 2040.

Conversely, if a particular expenditure only makes sense because Amazon might bite on it, maybe it deserves to slide down the list of priorities.

As if to underscore the bigger picture beyond Amazon, Apple this past week also announced it will spend some $350 billion in the U.S. over the next five years. That includes a new campus which is sure to set off a frenzy similar to the one chasing Amazon’s second headquarters.

There aren’t many of these “whales” out there. But the ones that do exist, plus more numerous medium-size fish, will want some of the same basic conditions to invest in Georgia. If there are things we need to do anyway to be more competitive, let’s get moving.