JR Ball: What Amazon’s HQ2 wishlist says about Baton Rouge


Amazon’s announcement that it will allow some lucky American city to pay oodles of corporate welfare in exchange for a $5-billion, 50,000-employee complex known as its second headquarters has, as you might expect, set off a zealous frenzy among the economic development crowd.

Mayors, council members and regional bigwigs from every nook and cranny of America are giddily proclaiming their interest in harpooning the whitest of economic development whales. This, of course, includes Baton Rouge—which, let’s be real, has no shot—and New Orleans.

And what’s not to love? Amazon, wherever its drones drop a second headquarters, will create 50,000 high-paying jobs that millennials dream about and billions of dollars of new investment. It’s an historic opportunity that no doubt will radically transform the economic and physical landscape of the winning city. In other words, some place is about to become a big deal city.

So even though Baton Rouge lacks the most basic of Amazon’s requests—a million people, an international airport, good schools, non-clogged roads and a qualified workforce—let’s not laugh too hard at Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and the Metro Council for passing a symbolic resolution “expressing support” for the company declaring our fair city to be the nirvana for what it calls HQ2.

Let’s set aside Amazon’s off-putting demand for bidders to get creative when cobbling together a state and local incentive package. Translation: How much money and tax relief will you give us, and are you willing to pass special laws to make it happen?

Louisiana has always found a way to buy—err, create—jobs. Besides, if we were willing to pony up $50 million for a chicken plant in north Louisiana, do you really think Louisiana will have a problem selling its soul to land the Nick Saban of new economy corporate America?

No matter how dire the budget circumstances, Louisiana has always found a way to buy—err, create—jobs. Besides, if we were willing to pony up $50 million for a chicken plant in north Louisiana, do you really think Louisiana will have a problem selling its soul to land the Nick Saban of new economy corporate America?

Far more interesting and instructive—especially from a Baton Rouge perspective—is to look beyond the money and examine some of the other “key preferences and decision drivers,” as Amazon calls them in its eight-page request for proposals.

Among the non-cash items Amazon desires are:

• “A stable and consistent business climate.”

• “A highly educated labor pool is critical and a strong university system is required.”

• “… the presence and support of a diverse population.”

• “We want to invest in a community where our employees will enjoy living, recreational opportunities, and an overall high quality of life.”

Amazon, elsewhere in the RFP, wants to know about crime rates and the state of an area’s highway and road systems. And then there’s this: “Also, include connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro bus, light rail, train and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.”

So how does Baton Rouge fare?

Not good.

The desirability of a city to live, work and play is the deciding factor in where these new economy companies reside—along with the accompanying jobs today’s young, educated professionals crave.

A stable and consistent business climate? Has anyone been paying attention to what’s been playing out in the state legislature the past two years?

Our labor pool is not highly educated—hard working, yes; highly educated, no—and while we can debate the strength of LSU after a decade of financial cuts, it’s clear the Baton Rouge campus isn’t producing enough of the talent Amazon needs.

There may be a semi-diverse population in Baton Rouge, but it’s hardly supported. Heck, this city and parish can’t even pass a meaningless resolution saying we’re a welcoming city with a tolerance of all people, regardless of how one identifies.

Without question, there’s an abundance of recreation activities here, but not necessarily all that the tech crowd demands. And I doubt Amazon will be impressed looking at a quality of life that includes high cancer rates and alarming poverty numbers.

Do we even have to talk about our traffic and our crumbling, pothole-laced roads? As for our crime rate … let’s just say it’s not good.

Connectivity options? Our best hope is a fleet of Uber drivers on standby to shuttle workers wherever they need to go.

The point here isn’t to rip Baton Rouge. Rather it’s to turn a spotlight on what companies like Amazon are looking for in a city.

Putting together economic incentive packages are easy and everyone is doing it. In the end, the desirability of a city to live, work and play is the deciding factor in where these new economy companies reside—along with the accompanying jobs today’s young, educated professionals crave.

Unlike the petrochemical and oil and gas industries, those in the technology and research sectors aren’t bound by a region’s natural resources. Intellectual power—not an abundance of oil and gas and a deep-water port—is what companies like Amazon, Google, IBM and Apple require. And, like it or not, that resource is mobile and congregates in cities with the quality of life these talented individuals demand. Cities like Austin, Nashville, and the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham areas of North Carolina.

Let’s not lament the fact Baton Rouge, today, is not Amazon worthy. Instead, how about we begin making the changes necessary to make us a contender for HQ3?

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