The “Amazoning” of Urban Economic Development

New Orleans     Amazon has spread its tentacles from books to groceries to virtually everything we touch as the premier online marketplace for America and increasing parts of the world.  There seems no end to their range from drone deliveries to explorations of space to the Washington Post.  Now, in real time we may be watching the “amazoning” of urban economic development in the wake of their highly publicized search for a second headquarters that they promise would bring 50,000 jobs to some city in North America.  It is disturbing to imagine cities listening more intently to Amazon than their own citizens!

The search is down to twenty cities, and many voices in some of the cities, Toronto for example including ACORN Canada’s members and leaders, are less than enthusiastic as they envision even more displacement and tension around the unaffordability of housing.  Business leaders and politicians are lapping at Amazon’s feet in hopes of winning this strange contest and potentially mixed blessing.  That doesn’t count the potential truck loads of financial incentives and tax breaks that are likely to come to Amazon from the winning city that mortgages its future to become a company town for this secretive and totally self-interested enterprise.

We could almost dismiss this as a modern-day reality show that will play out for good or evil in only one city.  We could say, “be careful what you wish for” to the winning city and see what happens..

Sadly, like so many things Amazon, they won’t let us do that, because cities all over the country are reportedly now seeking the company’s advice on their own city’s development and planning.   There were two-hundred or more “losing” cities, so that makes this Amazon problem worse for all of us.  The Wall Street Journal and the financial and editorial pages of our daily papers that act as the sounding boards for business interests and local chambers of commerce are all trying to embrace Amazon group-think about how they need to reconfigure their development to fit the needs of the future as defined by Amazon.  Sacramento is restructuring all of its workforce training programs as is Orlando in order to develop more tech talent.  Detroit, a case study in urban sprawl and core abandonment, finally hears the fact that its apartheid might need a regional transit system to allow tech workers to amass sufficiently to attract an Amazon-like company. Cincinnati is using the Amazon rejection to “put the city’s economic development plans on steroids.”

To the degree a rejection slip might coincidentally force city fathers to hear what their citizens have said for years, maybe this is a good thing, but who believes Amazon demands are a prescription for every city’s future economic development?  Surely, no one in their right mind.  The music in the background is the same that accompanies every horror movie.

Meanwhile, Amazon in its current headquarters city of Seattle just announced that it was stopping construction on a building employing 7000 construction workers and not occupying another building until they get guarantees that the City Council will not assess a $500 per capita tax on workers in order to fund a better transportation system.  This kind of bullying is standard operating procedure for the company that calls the shots in a company town.  The potential winning city needs to follow this dispute carefully before they turn over the keys to their city to Amazon.

A city’s interests and needs are different than a company’s.  Cities like Detroit and Orlando surely know the downsides of being a company town, but haven’t all urban planners and economic development departments learned that a city can’t survive without a diversified economy?  The “amazoning” of urban America would not be a disruption, but a disaster.

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Has Arkansas Become a Walmart “Company” State?

New Orleans  Hey, I get it. Arkansas is what it is, a smaller, poorer state than many in the statistical match-ups in one category after another.

But, having spent a lot of time there and lived there for more than seven years in the 1970s, I can assure you it has many charms, wonderful people, especially all of my in-and-out-laws, colleagues and co-workers. Arkansas even boasts a former governor who was an occupant in the White House in Bill Clinton, and the first women to serve a full-term in the Senate, Hattie Caraway. I don’t want to even start on Petit Jean hams or the best apple fritters in the world produced by the Donut Palace in Dumas. Arkansas also is the home state of one of the biggest of the big mega-corporations in the world, Walmart, the largest private sector employer globally and in the United States that without a doubt has transformed the Fayetteville-Bentonville corridor in the northwestern part of the state over the last 50 years.

But, I’m not a flack for the state bureau of tourism, so let me work my way around to the point. I know something about company camps and company towns. I spent some of the formative years of my boyhood and youth in such outposts in places like Rangely and Wilson Creek, Colorado. For years my family made a busman’s tour of such camps all over the western states in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico as well when my father was a bookkeeper and auditor for the California Company before it rebranded itself as Chevron. There are some pros, but there are a lot of cons.

It never really occurs that there was such a thing as a “company state” in the way there are company towns, until reading about the hot-breathed pursuit by cities throughout North America to be considered as the location of the Amazon’s second corporate headquarters and its claim to employ 50,000 workers at such a site. Some yahoos in the Little Rock business community are so Wally-eyed that they even slapped the Amazon bear, as the saying used to go in Arkansas. According to a piece in the New York Times:

A few applicants went in the opposite direction and sought to highlight their decision to not bid on Amazon’s second headquarters. A business group in Little Rock, Arkansas, recently took a newspaper ad (in the Washington Post, owned by Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos) and created an internet video telling Amazon it didn’t want the traffic hassles its new headquarters would bring to town.”

Perhaps needlessly, the reporter than added that, “Arkansas is the home state of Amazon’s arch-rival, Walmart.”

Don’t misunderstand me, Little Rock or anywhere in Arkansas, didn’t have the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell of winning the second headquarters for reasons too numerous to list, but why prostrate the state to Walmart, I wondered? On second thought though, Arkansans have allowed Walmart to buy a place at the education table for charter schools and privatization throughout the state, and their money seems to have been key in taking over the Little Rock school system. The company and the family, that stacked up billions from its success, have more and more seemed to treat the state as their private playground and testing lab for pet public policies and personal preferences.

Maybe the Little Rock business folks just decided to acknowledge what should have been obvious to all of us: Arkansas is a company state for Walmart. Now that they have proven it, and I’ve said it, it would seem that Walmart should be ashamed at not having done better for the state than it has. You know the old story, if you break it, you own it. If Walmart owns Arkansas, it ought to try to be more accountable for something than its own bottom line and competitive position. Maybe even the Little Rock business community would agree to that?

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