Houston could land Amazon's second headquarters
Usually, companies are relatively quiet about playing states and cities off each other to get the largest package of tax breaks and incentives. Not so with Amazon, which Thursday morning issued a public request for proposalinviting jurisdictions to submit bids for its second headquarters, including the amount of cash they'd be willing to pony up.
"The initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers," the RFP reads.
It's economic development as Olympic games: Interested cities decide how much money they want to spend for the privilege of attracting a lot of attention and new jobs. That way, the company has the maximum number of contestants to bid up the price.
Of course, Houston will want to play this game. And it definitely has a shot at winning.
"The city is very interested," said Alan Bernstein, spokesman for Houston mayor Sylvester Turner. "The city is checking on the procedures for officially being considered, and the city is excited and feels like it's well positioned for a number of reasons."
First of all, the economic development research shows that tax breaks are almost never the determining factor in a city's location decision. The chosen city will have to check all of Amazon's boxes before adding any incentives on top. Those are:
Real estate. Houston has plenty of this — more than it needs at the moment, with contraction in the energy industry. Whole blocks of downtown are still either empty or underutilized, ripe for the kind of development that Amazon has embarked upon at its current headquarters in downtown Seattle.
Labor force. Houston has plenty of people, and enough universities either locally or near by to feed its demand for software engineers, if computer science programs were significantly ramped up. It also has lots of expertise in shipping and logistics, which is a lot of what Amazon does these days.
Connectivity. Amazon wants easy access to major highways and airports with direct flights to cities all over the country, which Houston has, along with a major port and rail lines. Traffic may be a problem, but that's probably true in most major cities under consideration.
"Cultural community fit." Amazon defines this as diversity, a stable business environment, and government entities eager to work with large companies. Check, check, and check — especially the last part, which local officials have already demonstrated through handing out tax breaks for Amazon's two new distribution centers in the area.
"Community/quality of life." This is something that Houston has been working on hard for the past decade, building parks and beautifying neighborhoods, recognizing that many companies view it as essential to attract today's workforce. It may not be able to match Seattle yet, but it's moving in the right direction.
In addition, Houston is close to Austin, which is too small for Amazon's requirements, but does have a wealth of technical talent and also the headquarters of Whole Foods, which Amazon now owns. Houston still has a housing cost advantage over many other large cities — while Seattle is showing the strain of accommodating Amazon's more than 40,000 workers, there's considerable room for dense housing construction in areas near downtown Houston.
Another criterion that Amazon puts high on its list: Sustainability. Bringing in Amazon, with its Pacific Northwesty ways, could be a catalyst for Houston to develop in a more resilient fashion — especially in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which tested the city's infrastructure to its limits. Amazon will probably want to see continued investment in mass transit and a commitment to clean energy that the city hasn't yet totally demonstrated.
Now, there are all kinds of concerns about the value of Amazon to the nation and the world as it continues on its march to dominate retail, which may already be claiming jobs in the Houston area. But there's little doubt that Amazon would be a valuable asset for Houston, which has struggled to build a tech scene within a corporate culture still dominated by oil and gas.
The question is, how much should Houston offer the mega-corporation to lure it in?
It's frustrating, because Amazon clearly doesn't need the money — while the company is still not turning much of a profit, that's only because it's investing heavily in building market power by entering new shopping categories, such as groceries. Its shareholders' remarkable
permissiveness, as well as taxpayer subsidies of nearly a billion dollars since 2005, have made CEO Jeff Bezos one of the world's richest people.
Realistically, Houston — and Texas, with its bag of business attraction goodies — may need to make an effort. But it should have the self-confidence to recognize its natural advantages should be sufficient.