Several thoughts raced through my mind Thursday morning when the Seattle-based online retail giant Amazon announced that it was looking for a second headquarters city — that it would create 50,000 mostly well-paying, mostly tech jobs in a North American city with more than one million people, a young, vibrant and diverse workforce, great transportation, and available land for a massive new campus.
The first thought was: Isn't Amazon gazillionaire CEO Jeff Bezos channeling the very spirit of 21st century Philadelphia with that announcement? The second thought was — if Philly did miraculously win this $5 billion Apprentice: Silicon Valley reality show, do the city's twenty- and thirty-something women really deserve to have their budding romantic lives strangled by a tsunami of dull tech geeks?
That may seem like an odd reaction, unless you read the viral story that came out of Seattle a couple of years ago with the blunt headline, "Amazon Is Killing My Sex Life." The article in Dame Magazine blamed the tech giant for making its original HQ city "lousy" with "boring tech dudes." The weird part is that Amazon's overwhelmingly male (sigh) hiring practices should have created a Here Come the Brides-style dating windfall for Seattle's young and restless females, but the reality is counter-intuitive. Notes the article: "You might think an abundance of men is a great thing, but as a wise woman once said, 'The odds may be good, but the goods are odd.' "
"They had money, but they were boring," said a 33-year-old woman of her life dating in a tech-crazed city. "They had a lot to say about their job, but their development as a complete human being seemed to be stunted. And they exhibited little to no interest in the other person at the table."
The bigger point is this: The overriding law when it comes to attracting Bezos' tech-Disneyland is the law of unintended consequences, also known as being careful what you wish for. An Amazon HQ would bring the holy grail of high-tech jobs, new development, and a huge boost in civic prestige. But the downside could be more than just ruining Tinder for thousands of hope-robbed Philadelphia women — soaring rents and a crisis of affordable housing, pricing out young artists and dreamers, and crushing any and all cultural diversity and vibrancy. All to win a competition based not on what Bezos can do for you, but on what you can do for Bezos (currently the world's second-richest man, just behind Microsoft's Bill Gates, with a reported net worth of $82 billion).
Simply put, do we really want this?
Yes, we do, according to a lot of my Twitter pals, even those who normally tend to be cynical about the power of massive corporations and billionaires such as Bezos but who immediately jumped on the Amazon-to-Philly bandwagon. (Full disclosure: I've written three short e-books for Amazon's Kindle Singles program — you should read them — and occasionally get Seinfeldesque "Super Terrific Happy Hour"-size double-digit penny checks from them.) None were more enthusiastic than civic cheerleader-in-chief Mayor Kenney.
But in a shocking and completely unexpected development, Philadelphia turned out to not the only North American city to see itself as the perfect mate for Amazon. Pretty much every major U.S. and Canadian city (even places such as Tulsa — really?) announced that it would be bidding, aggressively, for the Amazon HQII. Meanwhile, the experts started to weigh in, and while Philadelphia is ranked higher than many contenders, few saw the City of Brotherly Love as a finalist. The New York Times' "the Upshot" went with the clean, patchouli-scented streets of Denver, while others fixated on Toronto (a diverse, well-educated metropolis with great transit) or Washington, where Bezos recently purchased not only the Washington Post but also a $23 million mansion.
The Times eliminated Philadelphia on statistics, insisting that despite all the construction cranes you see in Center City, the region's job growth is too anemic. Look at the fine print and you'll see other problems for our bid, including a strong focus on "tax structure." Bezos — said to be a libertarian (although apparently not on the topic of government subsidizing large corporations) — would presumably hate the city wage tax, among other levies. And while the city has two ideal sites for an Amazon campus on paper, in reality the Navy Yard desperately needs the subway link that officials have dilly-dallied over for years, while the Schuylkill Yards between 30th Street Station and Drexel University doesn't even have the giant platform that it needs to be built atop.
Having said all of this — and maybe it's just hometown bias — a part of me thinks Philadelphia is a more serious contender than some of the experts are saying. After all, much of the city's renaissance — its revitalized neighborhoods and its many small tech start-ups — has happened without those same experts paying much attention. I think Bezos — who, like everybody, wants to rule the world — wants to plant his flag on the East Coast. And he's politically savvy, which might eliminate both Toronto (not American) and D.C. (already resented by 95 percent of Americans). But if Philadelphia is in the mix, now is the right time to ask whether we even want to be.
Center City's comeback hasn't turned around the still-struggling finances of the Philadelphia School District. Tax-giveaway policies are part of the problem. The city's 10-year-tax-abatement program for real estate developers was arguably a good idea when urban development seemed dead in the water a couple of decades ago, but now that things are booming, one wonders whether the millions in lost property taxes is still worth it. Across the river in Camden, we've seen government giveaways on steroids — with developer cronies of Gov. Christie or Democratic boss George Norcross getting massive tax incentives to move a few miles, even as they provide few if any jobs for the low-income folks who actually live in Camden.
Whatever you think of this kind of corporate welfare, I can assure you it pales in comparison to the extortionate demands that Amazon and its $82 Billion Man will be making on their new second home. Do we really want to screw over the city's long-suffering schoolkids and working-class taxpayers for the kind of deal that would make the world's second-richest man even richer?
You know what city isn't bidding for Amazon's 50,000 new jobs? Seattle. Maybe that's because skyrocketing rents and condo prices and the din of non-stop construction have ruined neighborhoods in what used to be one of the most livable middle-class cities in America. They've seen enough. In Philadelphia, gentrification and rising rent-and-home prices have certainly been an issue, but nothing like what they've seen in places such as Seattle or San Francisco. Amazon would change that equation in Philadelphia — and not for good. And a tech takeover would change the fundamental character of the city in ways that most of us would neither expect nor like.
Having said all that, I'm not against Philadelphia wooing Amazon — but on our terms. Go for the one thing that might still appeal to a gazillionaire like Bezos who has everything: His legacy and his desire to be a remembered as a great American. Philadelphia offers Amazon many of the things it wants in a headquarters but also a unique opportunity to use the tech company's wealth and remarkable know-how for a philanthropic crusade to re-invent the city where America was founded. That would mean a partnership between the city and Amazon toward actually making the schools better — through both money and donated expertise — rather than sucking them dry, and working together on real affordable-housing solutions.