The more obvious blog posts this week would discuss Hurricane Irma and our future of stronger, more powerful storms (hoping for the best for Florida), talk about Donald Trump’s asinine approach to North Korea, or even blast Hillary Clinton’s recent book release that unfairly and ridiculously puts the blame for her November loss on everyone and everything but her own actions. But let’s talk about something that has the urban planners and economic development officials around North America running around with high expectations, top five lists, and “sleeper” picks. You guessed it… It’s Amazon!
Jeff Bezos, by now we all know the name. We know him for Amazon, for dreaming of private spaceflight to Mars, for his continuous investment in successful Silicon Valley start-ups, for his recent success in producing television, and for the risks that he has taken in becoming one of the richest people in the world. He has taken Seattle from a mid-sized city to a world-renowned city with Amazon’s World Headquarters of 8.1 million square feet of office space, seating over 40,000 employees across 33 buildings. Now he wants to make it two in what will become Amazon HQ2 and could be a major slam-dunk for any city around the US. Even long-established cities like New York and Washington DC would jump through hoops for this type of development, a development that could eventually feature millions of square feet of office space, over 50,000 employees earning upper middle-class wages, and employing the future engineers and computer science geeks of our country (or Canada). Now, based on his previous risks and investments, and just simply the type of guy he seems to be – someone who wants to make a great impact – my mind immediately went to Detroit. You can call me a hopeless optimist (or romantic) if you want, because I am, but there really is merit to this thought. Even one of the most famous city planners of our time, Richard Florida, calls Detroit his “sleeper” pick for landing Amazon’s HQ2.
Even our own Dan Gilbert is getting excited about the possibilities, already creating an internal and external team to prepare a bid for Amazon to join what is happening in Detroit. He already helped land a regional Amazon office for Detroit last year. Most people don’t know about the growing tech industry that has energized downtown Detroit, but since 2010, downtown Detroit has seen 10,000 new jobs added from companies under the Quicken Loans umbrella. They have attracted other tech companies like Twitter and Amazon, and multiple start-ups have begun growing. They have even attracted tech companies that are growing from the recent resurgence of our bread-and-butter industry, the auto industry. Maybe we can even win the most sought-after prize of them all, the grand prize… Amazon.
As you start to read through the Request for Proposals released this week by Amazon, you can get more and more hope for Detroit (and really any city of your choice). Meeting the site criteria are what will win this for a city. It begins with a site that is within 30 miles of a population center. Done. An international airport within 45 minutes. Done. Major highways and arterials within 1-2 miles of the site. Done. And there are even the unwritten criteria like a walkable, urban environment, sustainable practices being achieved, and the opportunity to be part of a much larger story (the Detroit story) that Amazon’s millennial workforce so desires. DONE! Woah, this might actually be a possibility..
One more piece of criteria to check-off the list.. Direct access to mass transit. SHIT. Buzz-Kill.
The need for mass transit is a fact that the rest of the country understands the importance of, but for some reason people in Metro Detroit are blind to it. We need mass transit to be competitive, to be considered a vibrant, world-class city. We used to be that. We used to have streetcars running all around the region. Then we bought into this crazy idea, funded by General Motors, that if we are the motor city, we can’t have other ways of getting around. That apparently the health of our industry depends on ONE region being completely dependent on the automobile. I’ve got news for you, people in other cities that actually have mass transit still own cars.
Imagine how many jobs we have lost to other cities because of our lack of mass transit. I would bet on hundreds of thousands. Imagine how many millennials and young people have fled Detroit because they cannot live without a car, because they cannot find the urban environment they desire. I would bet thousands over the last decade alone. I am one of them. I would love to one day come back to a region that finally gets it. We were close in November, but not close enough. Back to Amazon…
If I were the City of Detroit, the State of Michigan, Dan Gilbert, I would package a deal like this… We meet all of the site criteria except one. But we will meet that too. Our international airport is light-years ahead of those mid-sized airports in Pittsburgh and Austin. We have direct flights around the world, to Amsterdam, London, Reykjavik, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Rio, and you can keep going from there. We have a direct flight to Seattle from our magnificent Delta hub. We have an urban network and a regional network set up for growth larger than you will ever bring. We have a community that will back your corporate interests. We have other corporate companies that will forever call this home and back you. And damnit… we will build rail lines for you. We will build a direct rail connection to Detroit Metro Airport along Michigan Avenue, the A-Line. We will extend the Q-Line into a regional light-rail system that will connect the yuppie, hipster areas of Oakland County to your headquarters. And we will figure out some way to get the oddly-conservative blue-collar folks of Macomb County to buy into this regional mass transit system too.
This opportunity is bigger than Amazon. There has never been a time where our lack of transit has been more blatantly detrimental to the future growth and positive change in our region. It is a decision that makes business sense that truly shows the importance of mass transit beyond your own personal selfishness. You may not use this system, but there are people out there that can’t afford a car, or an Uber. And there are people like me who just want a lifestyle that doesn’t require a car. There are companies out there who are attracting talent that want these urban amenities that we have no chance of attracting in our current state.
Let’s change together to grow our region, keep our educated at home, once again build a stimulating, inclusive urban-core, and all live a greater and happier life. There may not be any lions and tigers in the Amazon rainforest.. But maybe there can be some in Amazon?