Opinion » The Rant

Amazon Land

Giving away the farm — and dignity — to gain HQ2 is a bad idea.

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I love Amazon.

I love automating my recurring purchases so a seven-pound bag of cat food appears on my doorstep on the first day of every month. I love adding items to my wishlist, getting eerily accurate recommendations, and never having to wait more than two days for a package. I love AmazonBasics and Amazon Video. I love having a record of every single item I've ordered since 2002. "Same, girl," say the people who profit off my personal data. I grudgingly love how easy it is for me to buy crap 24 hours a day.

However, I do not love the beauty pageant that is the bidding process for Amazon's second headquarters. Watching city leaders trip over each other to offer up their communities — as if that company isn't powerful enough already — depresses me.

Since the company announced it was looking for a home for its HQ2, 238 contestants have entered the Thirstiest City in North America Contest. Fifty-four states, provinces, territories, and districts clicked Add to Wishlist. Of the 50 United States, only Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Vermont, and Arkansas opted out. Marketing firms across the continent have billed untold hours to help chambers of commerce, convention boards, and city governments prostrate themselves before CEO Jeff Bezos with viral videos and PR stunts. As if the city with the cleverest hashtag is going to win, instead of the one that coughs up the biggest tax bribe, I mean break.

Shame and sense fly out the window when there are "up to 50,000 high-paying jobs" on the table. It's so brazen — so transparently capitalistic — I wonder if it's all a big prank. Will there be consolation prizes? Or will the desperate runner-up cities be shamed for putting so many eggs in one shopping cart?

I get it. The infusion of new jobs and the direct and indirect investment will transform the city Amazon chooses for its HQ2. Can you imagine if Memphis was the one? I cannot. I understand the motivation. The optics would be worse if our city and county mayors said "Nah, we're good with this." At best, it's a long shot. And I'm not sure it would help the people who need it. The idea of 50,000 jobs sounds incredible. The idea of 50,000 jobs with an average annual salary over $100,000 sounds even better. Or it would, if we could secure a promise that Memphis residents would be the ones hired and trained to do them. Otherwise, rents would go up, tax rates would climb (somebody's got to pay that $60 million incentive), and we'd be stuck wondering how all these blessings haven't made a dent in the poverty rate. Please, prove me wrong.

Jeff Bezos - REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS
  • REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
  • Jeff Bezos

Little Rock placed a full-page ad in The Washington Post announcing its withdrawal from the HQ2 incentives arms race. Like Memphis, the city doesn't meet the mass transit requirement outlined in the request for proposals, among a few other deal-breakers. The disruption would not be worth the sacrifice, the ad explains. San Antonio dropped out too, because as Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said in an open letter, "blindly giving away the farm isn't our style."

I wish Memphis could be that self-aware. The enthusiasm and pride are always nice to see, but no amount of fun facts can change the important reality that this city needs to love itself a little more before it can get a suitor like Amazon's attention.

In the meantime, I hope having an itemized list of the types of characteristics companies are seeking will inspire some action. We've long known what the city needs, but those deficiencies are harder to ignore when they're spelled out. Designating $10 million for public transit, airport infrastructure improvements, and workforce development in its Amazon resolution is an admission on the Memphis City Council's part that those should be priorities, no matter what.

Instead of joining a free-for-all to woo a particular name, make Memphis a place where a company would want to invest. Embrace and nurture the people who are already here running their hustles and feeling a little insulted by city council offering 10 percent of the city's budget to a billionaire. Who knows, the next Jeff Bezos might already be here among us. It wouldn't be the first time.

Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and digital marketing specialist.

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