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Daniel Howes: Amazon run amok

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Amazon.com announced the winners of its HQ2 sweepstakes. In case you missed it, the winners are... wait for it... New York and suburban Washington.

What a surprise.

Earlier this year, the techy retailer turned the nation’s major cities and regions upside down at the prospect of a $5 billion investment. One promising 50,000 jobs paying an average of $100,000.

This week, the Gorilla chose money and power. New York and Metro D.C. are as far from the Heartland as they could get tiny dots of swaggering, influential blue on a vast red map of, well, Amazon customers.

Which is the point, right?

Shouldn’t be surprising at all for the most valuable company on the planet; a company upending retail and shopping as we know it, a company now sitting on the competitive and market intelligence of more than 200 cities and regions across the United States. And that includes metro Detroit.

Played for suckers? Sure looks like it.

It’s all so predictable: this icon of the New Economy where principled left-of-center-minded moguls publicly fret about “income inequality” is choosing to slum with the elites and split its HQ2 between the two most expensive cities on the East Coast.

So places already bedeviled by traffic, self-importance and access to affordable housing; and by affordable, I mean something less than a million bucks for a modest single family home, will only see it get worse. And the equality gap will widen.

Evidently, that’s the price to pay for Amazonian largesse. That and billions of dollars in incentives to ensure the communities pay twice. Once, to fatten CEO Jeff Bezos’s prodigious wallet, and a second time to underwrite the higher cost of living.

I’m not the only one who thinks a whole lot of places got manipulated. Here in Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan asked mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert to quarterback the process for arranging the regional Amazon bid. In less than six weeks, he bridged parochial politics, enlisted business leaders and made an authentic case for a region reinventing itself. Detroit didn’t make it out of the first round because it didn’t stand a chance.

The cynicism would be staggering if its wasn’t so predictable.

Amazon’s big and getting bigger. Along with tech giants like Facebook and Google, it’s drawing the attention of lawmakers, would-be regulators and bankers in New York always looking for fees. What better way for Amazon to influence policymaking in Washington than to become a hometown employer by dropping some 25,000 jobs just across the river in Virginia.

The rest of the country pretty much wasted its time, unless you buy the argument that the effort itself was worth it because the community learned, well, what it already knew. Like Metro Detroit’s public transit stinks.

What a surprise?

Amazon can locate operations wherever it wants. But the next time someone complains about what the income and skills divide is doing to the country, remember Amazon. Its geographic bias gives you one reason why.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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