Dear Little Rock, Amazon DOES matter | Arkansas Blog

Friday, October 27, 2017

Dear Little Rock, Amazon DOES matter

Posted By on Fri, Oct 27, 2017 at 8:37 AM

click to enlarge A MESSAGE: We can do better. Amazon does matter.
  • A MESSAGE: We can do better. Amazon does matter.

A New York Times columnist's examination
of what Amazon seeks in a location of a new headquarters with 50,000 jobs provides a lesson that Little Rock needs to learn. Cutesy "breakup" letters don't help, they might even hurt by discouraging self-examination.

LOVE LITTLE ROCK: But don't be blind.
  • LOVE LITTLE ROCK: But don't be blind.
James Stewart of the Times focuses on important factors in Amazon's city search. Missing in Little Rock's PR "breakup" campaign — we're not good enough for Amazon but we're plenty good enough for everyone else — was a sufficient acknowledgment that many, many companies in the high-tech age want exactly the same things Amazon wants. We ignore those wants at our peril. Examples:

* LIVABILITY: What Amazon calls "site building" matters. It doesn't mean hundreds of acres of open land. At all. It means dense core cities and re-use of historic structures (a little bit of which Little Rock IS doing.)

The idea of inhabiting the sort of self-contained suburban corporate parks so common in Silicon Valley seems anathema to Amazon. The company has said that 20 percent of its employees in Seattle don’t use motorized transport to get to work. Fifty-five percent walk, ride bikes or use public transportation. Fifteen percent live in the ZIP code where they work.

Amazon deliberately provides cafeteria space for only a third of its employees, which encourages people to venture out of the office. The company provides retail space on the ground floor of its Seattle buildings and tries not to rent to generic national chains (its headquarters has a dozen local coffee roasters.) It has developed a sense of the kind of urban community that attracts and retains highly educated, talented and creative workers.

In practical terms, this kind of dense, vibrant and architecturally distinctive urban environment exists mostly in cities that developed before the advent of the automobile, industrial cities in the Midwest and Northeast and older cities in Canada.
55 percent don't drive to work. Chew on that for a second.

I remind for the umpteenth time that the architects of the Love Little Rock campaign, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and friends, favor a regional development strategy that claims six counties with hundreds of square miles as our urban area and is madly pushing to widen the concrete ditch through the heart of town to get people home by car faster to far-flung suburbs.

* INCENTIVES AND COSTS: Here, we do well, maybe too well. We'll give away the ranch in corporate welfare to an industrial client. And the cost of living in Arkansas is cheap (thanks particularly to low wages and stingy benefits and limited worker protection.)

* LABOR FORCE: This means tech talent. We have some, no doubt. A lot? No. Little Rock doesn't even make the map of an annual national ranking of tech talent cited in the article.

* EDUCATION: Amazon said a "strong university system is required." Are the city and state doing enough to invest in UA-Little Rock? Football doesn't count. (OK the MITEngineers are having a good year — 6-1. They, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie-Mellon are D-III.)

* LOGISTICS: International airport? Of course not. But what if you wanted to get to Seattle? Or Boston? Or San Francisco? Or Miami? Or Nashville? Hello Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago or Houston first. We have a good airport. But its flights and routes are a function of demand. Our passenger growth has been stagnant for years.

* "COMMUNITY AND CULTURAL FIT": Here it gets tricky. We have most of the elements on a cultural punch list — theater, art museum, symphony. But:

Most major cities offer an array of cultural, culinary, recreational and sports attractions, and any that they lack will most likely spring up if Amazon arrives.

That puts a premium on diversity and education, factors important in attracting a talented work force. Given Amazon’s vocal support for diversity and inclusion, it seems unlikely it would choose a city or state perceived as intolerant or that has moved to curb civil rights, like North Carolina’s widely publicized effort to curb gay and transgender rights.
Hello Arkansas. The state turned blood-red at the sight of an African-American president. Its governor, legislature and attorney general are fighting to deny women full medical rights. There's official enmity toward immigrants, from our U.S. senators on down. The same leaders, with occasional support from the Arkansas Supreme Court, are committed to legal discrimination against LGBTQ people. Is the Love Little Rock campaign working to do anything about this?

Amazon is not a singular creature. Other businesses look at communities through the same prism, even if many here do not. Thus the message, Dear Little Rock.

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