Trick or Treat? 5 Experiences of HQ2

This week, children all over the country go knocking on doors in the annual ritual of Halloween, trick or treat. In many places, this day is one of the few when you get to meet your neighbors as we go door to door, shuffling along and bumping into friends not seen in some time.

Amazon HQ2 is that kid who ignores the rules, that senior in high school who just wants the candy. Amazon HQ2 did not wear a costume and knocked early when, on September 7th, 2017, it announced its intentions to locate a $5B second headquarters and a 50,000 person workforce somewhere in North America. In a reversal, Amazon pulled a neat trick by getting potential suitors to send elaborate proposals on what treats they had to offer, thus sparing the company the drudgery of actually visiting the communities.

Amazon has always been an industry disruptor, and this latest campaign is either pure genius or a Trojan horse: a trick or treat experience that by my estimate cost North American communities well over $119 million in staff time, and professional fees for video production, print media, research and economic analysis and more to create their responses. In its mailbox, Amazon received 238 proposals in response to its detailed request for proposals.   

There are so many lessons to learn and points to consider in what ensued over a six week period that I plan to make this an Amazon HQ2 series over the next year. As I dwell on the HQ2 lessons learned, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. To get that started, please take the companion survey here:

In this posting I cover: Trick or Treat? 5 Experiences of HQ2

Treat: Quality of Place

The criteria that Amazon published in their RFP is straight from our (link to Fourth Economy Quality of Place pdf) Consulting Playbook. While we hope that all of the bidders can cover the basics of labor force, location, and incentives, it is the areas that cover cultural community fit and community/quality of life attributes that make the RFP a treat. These are the areas that, we believe, can make any community a success. Amazon notes variables such as a diverse population, strong higher education systems and local government that will work with them. Under quality of life they mention daily living and recreational opportunities.The real treat will be if all 238 cities actually spent time considering these factors and while putting their best forward also identified opportunities to invest in making their quality of place better.

Trick: A proposal is not a plan

My professional guess is that very few of the cities that submitted a proposal actually had an economic development strategy in place that guides how they will attract and retain new jobs, let alone how they will handle 50,000 over a short period of time. On the other hand, the communities that do not have such a strategy but did submit a bid now have a lot of great information collected in one spot that they can use to advance a plan that goes beyond this one opportunity or if Amazon delivers less than promised.

Treat: Dare to Dream

In many communities, the thought of 50,000 new jobs in a relatively short period of time is exhilarating. This is especially true in Rust Belt cities that lost a lot more jobs that that over the past two or three decades and have struggled with starting the growth engines again. The exhilaration is of course tempered a little when one starts to look at what Amazon’s growth has done for Seattle’s housing prices and other cost of living factors. The resulting conversations are good though as these are the scenarios that communities should be considering with any plan for growth. I am hopeful that the 238 dreamer cities all use the time between now and Amazon’s next step in the process to have honest conversations and plan for what’s next in their communities.  

Trick: All That Information

Amazon now has a lot of information on 238 communities and as a company built on data mining they are going to have a field day slicing and dicing. They ask in the RFP for a great deal of information that is readily available via the web. Locations with 1 million people, proximity to an international airport, crime statistics, stable business climate. All of this information could have been found through a simple request to Alexa. Or just start with the New York Times, CNBC, Brookings and more who all crunched the numbers and provided their ‘Top’ lists of communities that meet the criteria. The style points of how the proposers are pitching their communities must have been the reason to ask for Amazon to have them to do their homework for them. So the trick is that as many as 237 communities did a lot of work and may still get a failing grade.

Treat or Trick: Place Your Bets

The idea that there are betting sites now offering odds on which city will be chosen is probably both a treat and trick. A treat in that we can all continue to play along in the speculation and if we guess right make a few bucks in the process. A trick because the notion that people are literally betting on communities opens up a strange channel of conversation about their future.

Placemaking and Business Retention and Expansion

The following is the second installment of a four-part series entitled, “Re-defining the Three-Legged Stool: Placemaking as a Component of Economic Development.” 

The previous installment explored placemaking’s role in business attraction as it improves the quality of life of a community and the marketability of a place. This installment considers how placemaking influences business attraction and retention.

Defining Business Retention and Expansion

Business retention and expansion (BRE) is different than business attraction because it focuses on helping existing businesses already in the community to prosper and grow. Typically, the main tool of BRE is a yearly survey of businesses that economic developers send out to (or make appointments to work through in-person with) businesses in their communities. In cases where businesses are seeking to expand, economic developers can provide access to financing, in the form of revolving loan funds, grants, and other loans, or by providing access to municipal or state resources.

Mixed Uses Contribute to Improved Usability

But, even if they aren’t aware of it, economic developers are also likely engaged in business retention and expansion activities that overlap with placemaking. For example, businesses that are multi-use, such as breweries with attached tasting rooms or small-scale food manufacturers with attached kitchens, often do not fit into one zoning category — though their mix of uses is what makes them unique, and contributes to a lively neighborhood. This can make expansion difficult, and lead to cumbersome zoning negotiations, causing businesses to lose both time and money. If economic developers work with city planning staff to assist business owners in these cases, then they are helping to create more vibrant places with improved usability.

New Uses for Older Properties

As real estate tides change, economic developers will need to be creative about new uses for old properties. Retail outlets and office spaces are being repurposed for apartments, maker spaces and incubators or are being converted into space for existing businesses to expand. The success of these new uses depends on a vibrant, transit-linked, pedestrian friendly environment to attract the kind of young talent that populate these spaces.

Innovation Districts

Creating nodes of activity in centrally located, pedestrian, and transit-accessible areas can also assist with regional business retention. As shown by the Brookings Institution’s research shows, more and more companies are choosing to move from suburban corporate campuses to areas where economic, networking, and physical assets are more accessible, contributing to a rise in what has been termed “Innovation Districts.” These districts combine small businesses, bars, and restaurants with startups, institutions such as banks and universities, and large companies. The diverse mix of tenants leads to more collaboration and an attractive environment for knowledge workers.

Attracting a Quality Workforce

From assisting businesses with zoning issues to encouraging innovation districts, business retention and expansion efforts are improved when viewed through a lens of placemaking. However, the most important determinant for keeping businesses in a community and helping them to expand is a talented and plentiful workforce. Creating a place with a higher quality of life attracts more people to communities and engenders a strong bond that helps retain populations. Smart companies understand this and locate themselves where their workforce wants to live. Placemaking is part of a larger business retention and expansion effort, and offers an advantage that should be used by economic developers.

Three Lessons for Cluster Development

The Fourth Economy team has had the pleasure of supporting the University of Pittsburgh as they look to advance the life sciences cluster in Pittsburgh to the next level. Our work included researching the predicted next generation industry advances, analyzing the region’s research capacity and influence, location benchmarking, profiling the current cohort of life sciences companies, and discussing what is needed to build on the growing success of the sector.

We were able to provide the life sciences community with specific recommendations and a website to tell their story. The take-aways from our findings for this project are not necessarily unique to this sector in Pittsburgh and should be considered across any industries that a local community is looking to support.

#1: Sustained Leadership is Vital

Cluster development takes a vision and a level of sustained leadership that is able to evolve over a significant time horizon. Even when a region has a strong research base, it takes concentrated efforts by a community-minded intermediary to build a robust industry cluster. This cluster must provide collision points for local and out-of-region industry sector players to build relationships and find opportunities for collaboration. The output of this type of leadership activity cannot be measured in deals or investment, but creates the environment for those things to happen. We see many clusters fail because success is expected overnight, and leadership is not sustained long enough to build the necessary community infrastructure.

#2: Public, Private, and Philanthropic Investments Work

The important work of cluster development requires collaboration between the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to achieve the greatest leveraged impacts. At a time when questions swirl around the sustained commitment of federal research and development funding, it is critical to look at the models that many communities, including Pittsburgh, have demonstrated. Over 15 years ago, the state government, in collaboration with local philanthropy and the region’s research institutions, made a significant commitment to the emerging life sciences industry. The impact of those investments can be seen in the growing portfolio of companies and the position that the sector is in now.

#3: Regional impacts are Spurred by Neighborhood-Level Concentration

Industry clusters are often spread throughout a region both in terms of the location of firms and their employees. As firms mature and grow, they look for their own space, often in locations outside an urban core. But that urban core is vital to creating the density and culture of collaboration needed, especially in research and development-intensive industries. As the current generation workforce has made it known, they are looking for dense urban environments with ample amenities. In turn, the firms that are emerging will look for these locations as hosts for their employees. The Brookings Institute has advanced the notion of Innovation Districts to describe this phenomenon.

Pioneering a New Approach to Economic Development

A core principle at Fourth Economy is that economic development works best when it works at the intersection of environmental, social, and economic issues—a concept referred to as sustainable or triple bottom line economic development. A recent article published in Economic Development Quarterly by one of our Fourth Economy Pioneers gives some background into this concept.

Janet Hammer of The Collaboratory, the lead author of this research, notes that while traditional economic development delivers programs, policies, or activities designed to create or retain jobs and wealth, sustainable economic development does so in ways that also contribute to environmental, social, and economic well-being over time. This triple bottom line approach recognizes that economic development both influences and is influenced by a spectrum of factors like quality of life, fiscal health, resource stewardship, and resilience. Continue reading “Pioneering a New Approach to Economic Development”

Fourth Economy’s Rich Overmoyer and Chelsea Burket Appear on “Our Region’s Business”

Fourth Economy CEO Rich Overmoyer, along with Director, Sustainable Communities, Chelsea Burket were recent guests on “Our Region’s Business” hosted by Bill Flanagan. They discussed Fourth Economy’s role as a platform partner for the Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities initiative. Watch their appearance by clicking on the video below.

Nostalgia: Community Development Friend or Foe? Pittsburgh as a Case Study

Mabel-NostalgiaRecent podcasts about the benefits and drawbacks of nostalgia got me thinking about this human experience, its influence on communities, and what this means for community developers. I believe nostalgia can help create community, but prolonged nostalgia can be detrimental to a community’s ability to adapt and thrive. Community developers should recognize the value of a community’s collective nostalgia, but they should also work with communities to build upon this legacy and develop an inclusive story of the future. Pittsburgh, like many communities across the U.S., may benefit from this approach. Continue reading “Nostalgia: Community Development Friend or Foe? Pittsburgh as a Case Study”

Embedding Equity Into Economic Development

Guest Blog by Sarah Treuhaft, Director of Equitable Growth Initiatives, PolicyLink

Treuhaft-Inequit-BlogIt is another summer in which America’s deep racial fault lines are being painfully exposed. Following the horrific violence in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas, in a July 8 poll seven in ten Americans said race relations are “generally bad.” A National League of cities analysis of one hundred “state of the city” speeches from 2016 found that mayors increasingly view racism and inequities as major threats to progress in their cities.
Continue reading “Embedding Equity Into Economic Development”

GASB Shines a Light on Tax Abatements

Paytas-Blog2-Web-05-2016The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) has implemented new guidelines[1] for disclosing tax abatements with the requirements taking effect for financial statements for periods beginning after December 15, 2015. These new regulations will require a significant change in the operating procedures and record-keeping of many economic development organizations and local governments. Chances are many are not ready to meet the requirements of the new GASB standards. Continue reading “GASB Shines a Light on Tax Abatements”

Measure Up!

Paytas-Blog1-Web-05-2016The ripple effect of big data and analytics is hitting economic development. There has been a resurgence in new tools that package economic data to make it more accessible to a wider audience. A lot of these tools are using aggregated data that is useful but it is often not granular enough to inform an individual EDO or city about how to improve its economy and what is working.

To do that we need better data that is more granular with details about specific projects and specific companies. Big Data relies on and pushes for this kind of transactional data. Much of this kind of economic data does exist but it is walled off by various bureaucratic walls. We are a long way from incorporating Big Data into economic development, and there are real risks with a pure Data Analytics approach to understanding economies and creating development strategies. Continue reading “Measure Up!”

How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation

Evans-Blog-20160405City governments have experienced increasing financial strain over the past several decades – pension payments are coming due, infrastructure needs replacing, and the cost of providing social services is increasing. This leaves little room for local governments to get on the social finance innovation train that has been sweeping the private sector for the past few decades, where bright minds have been exploring social enterprise, low-profit limited liability companies, impact investment, and more. However, many have recognized the importance of bridging the gap between private sector innovation and government, leading to organizations across the sectors investing time and money devising ideas that may fill this void. Continue reading “How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation”