Prediction for 2018: Local reporter for the Washington Post will become a very awkward job.
On Thursday, Amazon released the 20-city shortlist in its continental game show to name its second headquarters, and the picks largely consist of the major North American cities you’d expect to have a shot, thanks to their large, educated workforces and abundant infrastructure, including Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Raleigh, Miami, Pittsburgh, and New York City. While some of the picks are pleasant surprises considering the economic gift Amazon and its anticipated 50,000 jobs would bestow on the winner (’sup, Columbus, Ohio?), it’s the three picks for the D.C. area—the city itself and two of its neighboring suburban regions, listed as Montgomery County, Maryland, and Northern Virginia—that are ticking up the most eyebrows Thursday.
Should we take this as a hint that Amazon is seriously considering coming to D.C.? Some support for that notion might include the fact that CEO Jeff Bezos probably doesn’t need a third spoke in his cross-country commute from Seattle: His company is a large federal contractor thanks to its cloud business and already has a significant and growing Amazon Web Services presence in Northern Virginia; he already owns the hometown paper; and he’s presently renovating the biggest house in D.C., which he bought in 2016. In a long piece about Bezos’ increasing visibility as a public figure, the New York Times noted recently that he now visits D.C. about 10 times a year and that he “plans to host salon-style dinners” in his new home, “drawing inspiration from the celebrated dinner parties thrown by Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Post, for the city’s movers and shakers from both parties.”
Sounds fun. It would be a bummer to make it an early night so you can commute to your day job in Raleigh, right?
While the D.C. area is an expensive enough place to live these days—lots of commentators have hoped that Amazon would pick a city more in need of an economic jolt—it may be one of a very small number of metropolitan areas that ever realistically had a shot thanks to Amazon’s significant needs. As Conor Sen summed it up last year in Bloomberg View:
This is the Olympics of corporate relocations. The winning city will be able to offer a large metro area, a deep and educated talent pool with a strong local university system, a robust international airport, sufficient highway and transit infrastructure, a reasonable cost of living, a welcoming culture, a business-friendly environment, likely eye-popping tax incentives, and a local business and political community able to work together to make a convincing pitch.
About those tax incentives. While cities across the continent have debased themselves with stunts, tax breaks, and other economic carrots in order to win Amazon’s favor, the municipalities of the D.C. area may have really had to outdo themselves, since they don’t just have other regions to compete against but also each other—a dynamic that has played out every time a local sports team has pondered building a new stadium. While we don’t know everything about what kinds of promises the district, Montgomery County, and Northern Virginia have made to Amazon, it’s a good bet that they’re quite generous (what we’ve seen of the District’s pitch certainly is)—particularly considering the slowdown in federal employment in recent years and some early warning signs that the regional economy could be in trouble. Also, like New York and Chicago, D.C. already has the robust (though frequently derided) transit infrastructure smaller cities may have promised to build out, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is currently completing an extension of the Metro deeper into Fairfax and Loudoun counties, potentially making those parts of Northern Virginia more attractive to large employers.
All of this, of course, could mean nothing at all. Where other cities that made the shortlist are sprawling, the D.C. area is cut up into a city and some fairly dense neighboring counties—municipalities that have collaborated before on bids involving a major economic boost but who went at it alone this time, perhaps putting each other at a disadvantage. And a city like Philadelphia, which has a lot of what D.C. has going for it but cheaper land and more room to build the kind of urban campus Amazon favors, might prove more compelling.
If D.C. or one of its neighbors does come out on top, all three would win, at least from the perspective of the people writing the economic incentives. (Never mind that tax-break bake offs like this are bad for all of us.) It would certainly keep local press critics busy, once this town’s only newspaper baron is also the boss of its second-biggest employer.