BOSTON (CBS) – When I talked to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh last November after Amazon by-passed Boston for a future corporate headquarters, he said all the right words about being disappointed. But it hard to miss another reaction in his tone and body language – relief.
Now we know why.
After months of intense criticism of the furtive process and major financial concessions behind New York’s successful Amazon courtship, the company has pulled the plug, because “a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”
After suffering through months of withering backlash from critics of the ill-fated plan to bring a future summer Olympics to Boston, Walsh can relate to the scorching New York politicians will now endure from both supporters and detractors of the deal.
Amazon/NY proponents will echo the spin of Kathryn Wylde, a key business backer of the HQ plan, who told the New York Times the successful rebuff sends a “pretty bad message to the job creators of the city and the world.”
Opponents like Michael Gianaris, a state senator who represents the Long Island City site, point to Amazon’s short-circuiting of the usual regulatory process and rejection of proposed changes in its arrangement as proof that “like a petulant child, Amazon insists on getting its way or takes its ball and leaves. The only thing that happened here is that a community that was going to be profoundly affected by their presence started asking questions.”
Both sides have a point. But those aren’t the only lessons to take away from Amazon’s New York flop.
For the newly-empowered tech giants like Amazon, there’s an old but important message underscored by this debacle: money can’t buy love.
The tens of thousands of jobs Amazon would have delivered along with all the ancillary benefits couldn’t overcome the outrage of citizens at the sight of one of the world’s richest corporations getting $3 billion out of taxpayers’ pockets for a move that threatened to overwhelm the local transit infrastructure and real-estate market. They should have been tipped off to this by last year’s stunning upset of an entrenched Democratic incumbent in the congressional district bordering Long Island City by an unknown, underfunded candidate named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But the chronic myopia of Amazon, smugly “progressive” companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, and other corporations on the make is to see profit and economic development as easy winners over working-class concerns like gentrification, overcrowding and privacy.
The Boston Olympic push was done in by the arrogance of a US Olympic Committee that thought their demands for secrecy, VIP treatment and excessive financial risk would be readily swallowed. Amazon made the USOC look humble by jerking over 200 U.S. cities around for a year to see how much they could shake them down for, then settling on two of the nation’s most affluent urban areas for their beneficence.
And yet their due diligence was so lacking, they assumed the notoriously contentious New York political culture could be steamrolled.
Chagrined pro-Amazon New York pols may well encounter heightened skittishness from big investors as a result of Amazon being chased out of town. But it’s New York; somewhat inexplicably (to me at least, I have no use for the place) people still want to be there.
The Amazon opponents better hope that fallout is short-lived. Unless other jobs and projects fill the void, their constituents may soon be wondering if the backlash was folly.
But the moral of the story is that cities with something to offer don’t ever need to sacrifice their self-respect and empty their wallets to attract investment.