Thursday is the deadline for proposals from cities interested in landing the new Amazon headquarters. Virtually every metropolitan area in America and Canada with more than a million residents is expected to submit a bid.
Kansas City is among them. Mayor Sly James recently bought 1,000 items from Amazon, then posted product reviews promoting the city’s virtues on the company’s website. The gesture was funny and drew attention across the country.
But the mayor, the Kansas City Area Development Council and others involved in this effort know publicity stunts won’t be enough. Amazon wants to make a very expensive deal, and serious players must offer a serious proposal.
We’re told the Kansas City plan includes potential sites in both states. The area will offer the standard package of off-the-shelf incentives, including abatements, tax rebates, credits and other tools used to attract corporations to the community. Additional offerings may be added to the cart, though that would involve the state legislature.
But local officials have been warning us for weeks that the Kansas City area will not win a bidding war for Amazon. On Monday, New Jersey offered Amazon nearly $7 billion in state and local tax breaks as incentives to build the company’s headquarters in Newark.
The Kansas City area can’t match that kind of offer, nor should it. Adding 50,000 Amazon employees during the next decade would require more schools, more roads and more police, all of which cost money. No city should be in the business of building a corporate headquarters for free or at a loss.
As one local business recruiter reminded us: Bringing 50 companies with 1,000 employees each to the area would be the same thing as Amazon, but cheaper.
Kansas City offers a quality of life that compares favorably with other metropolitan areas: low-cost housing, good schools, cultural amenities. High-speed fiber internet is a plus.
The lack of transit options is a problem, and some struggling neighborhoods are a challenge, but other cities face that, too. The airport is pretty shoddy.
But some involved in the Amazon effort say they’re most worried about the area’s relative lack of highly-skilled, highly-trained employees. This process reinforced those concerns.
“The region has a well-educated workforce,” a 2014 study concluded. But it “does not produce enough educated or STEM-qualified workers (science, technology, engineering and math) to keep pace with employer demand.” Yet this week, Kansas State University may announce a $10 million cut to its operating budget. And The Atlantic recently wrote about the worrisome decline of Midwestern research universities.
Kansas City’s bid for the Amazon headquarters is serious, and we hope it succeeds. If it fails, though, the effort still will have value if we learn from it.
Recruiting major companies takes more than an open checkbook, great barbecue and winning sports teams. It takes a long-term commitment to world-class schools and high-level training for 21st-century technologies. The states that understand this will prosper. Those that don’t will be left behind.