City on a Hill: Amazon's "shell" game

Around 1992-93, the media hype machine was all obsessive about which local music scene could have become “the next Seattle.”

Now the frenzy is back. Only this time, it’s got real economic stakes.

Now, just about every locale from Texas to Ontario, from California to New York, wants to be the 21st Century’s next Seattle.

Including Seattle.

Way-early one Thursday morning in early September, Amazon announced it wanted a second “co-headquarters” (or “HQ2”) city, somewhere in North America, preferably at a big city (or metro area) with at least a million residents and an international airport.

Amazon says the new office campus, wherever it is, will eventually have 50,000 workers and 8 million square feet.

It’s got 40,000 workers in Washington already, with at least 6,000 positions “open.” It occupies 8.1 million square feet in Seattle, or 20 percent of our current office space, across 33 buildings. Even more Amazon space is under construction or planning in greater downtown. It’s taking all the office space in the mega-tower going up next to Rainier Square.

While Amazon said the new corporate campus would be administratively equal to its current one, it also said Seattle “will always be home.”

Can you think of any company that had two “co-equal” headquarters cities? The Seattle Times’  John Talton has pointed out that some of the big bank mergers in past decades included promises of such co-head offices, but that they all eventually settled on one single “home base.” So did several merged biotech companies in the previous decade.

No, the only long-term co-headquarters I can think of is that of the Royal Dutch-Shell Group.

The oil giant has traditionally had a confusing web of global subsidiaries, leading up to parallel head offices in London and The Hague. But even that arrangement ended in 2005, with the Dutch office taking predominance.

Likewise, the Amazon “HQ2” campus will likely be the home base for several of the e-conglomerate’s growing array of operating divisions. Maybe hardware devices, or physical stores, or even Amazon Web Services (the company’s one consistently profitable unit, providing web servers and computing services for other dot-coms).

Novelist Ryan Boudinot, who worked for Amazon in two stints, has a different idea. Boudinot calls the HQ2 plan “an opportunity to build redundancies and compete against itself to arrive at the most innovative ideas.”

“Built-in redundancy” is a common buzz phrase in the computer data-center realm, a big part of Amazon Web Services. It means having multiple physical sites, each having multiple sources of electricity, each storing duplicates of the same files, so that if one site “goes down,” services are maintained.

In that respect, redundancy’s good for mega-computers and the files that live on them.

But redundancies in people?

I’m not so sure about that.

Besides, in Britain, the term “workforce redundancies” means what we call “layoffs.”

In the past month, over 130 cities, counties, states, and Canadian provinces have asked to be considered for HQ2. Even though the company’s not specified any subsidies or tax breaks it wants, localities are offering, or getting ready to offer, the proverbial moon and stars.

Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch wrote on city/state groveling to attract Amazon’s “HQ2”, at the cost of potentially massive “incentives”: “Should Philly screw over its schoolkids to make the world’s second richest man even richer?”

UW prof Margaret O’Mara said to GeekWire: “In an age where cities and states are starved for resources, often times these efforts at economic development, the costs of tax breaks for the city, will far outweigh whatever benefits come from the number of jobs created.”

Steven Strauss in USA Today was more terse: “Taxpayers and politicians, hold onto your wallets.”

Some local politicians’ responses to HQ2 could be summed up as: “It’s never too late to say ‘we’re sorry.’”

But sorry for what?

For aasking the outfit almost singlehandedly responsible for our traffic hell, hyper-gentrification, and mass evictions to give back a little more to alleviate the effects of its presence?

City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, never one to act subsurvient to corporatations, said HQ2 “is reminiscent of Boeing’s ongoing efforts to ship jobs out of the Seattle area and hold us hostage.”

The week after Amazon’s announcement Ballard’s Waterwheel Lounge posted a dry-erase-board message: “Special: The Bezos Burger. Like a regular burger, only 200 times more expensive and looking for another sleepy drinking town to gentrify into oblivion! Only $2,000 a month for 400 square feet.”

But seriously folks, any burg that wants HQ2 had better be ready for a big investment that might have a small tax-revenue return—perhaps too small to pay for the roads and schools and utility services an office mega-campus and its humans would need.

On the other hand, the “lucky winner” would get (if it doesn’t already have it) instant recognition on the corporate “world stage.”

And it’d get a lot of fancy lunch places and loud bars.