Jeff Bezos, Stop Looking: Why Baltimore deserves the new Amazon Headquarters

Inner Harbor Baltimore Skyline. Picture by Patrick Theiner

Today — October 19, 2017 is an important deadline for many U.S. cities: the final proposals are due for Amazon’s second U.S. headquarters. Countless hours around the country have been spent by teams of civic leaders, business executives and consultants preparing proposals for Jeff Bezos and his company. Cities have become incredibly creative in their pitches to court Amazon. The city of Tucson, Arizona tried to send a full size Saguaro cactus to Seattle in support of their bid ( Amazon rejected it). Stonecrest, GA has offered to rename itself “Amazon” should Bezos bestow HQ2 to them. The majority of bids are wrapped in extensive tax breaks and incentives for the company, with the expectation that cities would recoup these investments should Amazon come to town. Cities have long battled one another with alluring tax credits and deals in an attempt to lure companies, and the lucrative packages cities have offered have come under intense critique. These incentives have become even more controversial considering how some view Amazon’s impact on small businesses, considerations about the company’s working environment and contribution to U.S. job loss.

Despite these concerns, the impact of housing Amazon’s second headquarters would be far reaching, bringing 50,000 technology jobs and over $5 billion in local investment. The impact of this development would be transformative anywhere it is located. But placed in the right city, the effect could be transformative for Amazon as well, giving the company not only the opportunity to achieve its strategic goals, but to repair its civic image. Some cities, such as Denver and Boston have already been touted as possible front runners. While these are great cities (and many other cities around the U.S. are deserving), Amazon should consider Baltimore, MD for HQ2, as it presents one of the clearest opportunities of using business for social change (something Bezos himself has championed).

Importantly, Baltimore has the qualities Amazon explicitly outlined in their call — transport, talent and opportunity. The city is part of a comprehensive and varied transportation network that connects the city to the larger Washington, DC metro area and beyond (less than three hours to NYC by train). The city has a great international airport and is in close proximity to two others, putting it in easy reach to Amazon’s international offices in Europe. Inside the city, Baltimore’s overall walk score is 69, and Bike Score is 56, meaning a number of errands can be done on foot (the city scored just outside the country’s top 10 most walkable cities). Baltimore has a low cost of living and copious amounts of housing availability, allowing a millennial workforce the opportunity to easily reach the property ladder (something that is considerably more challenging in nearby DC, which boasts incredibly high housing costs and traffic gridlock). In addition, Baltimore’s large population of 2.8 million is far above Amazon’s 1 million minimum ask. The larger Washington-Baltimore Metro Area comprises over 8 million people, providing a large potential recruiting pool for highly trained talent. The region boasts many universities and colleges, and Baltimore benefits from the mobility of a young, international and diverse workforce drawn to work experience in neighboring DC. Baltimore itself is home to the one of the world’s top private universities in the world, Johns Hopkins. The surrounding resources and amenities also serve as a draw for prospective employees from further afield — the region’s Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore are nearby, and the city has copious cultural activities and amenities.

But there are a few other great things about Baltimore that Amazon should consider:

  • The city’s comprehensive and open approach to data. This transparency has had considerable positive spillovers, leading the way to address civic inequalities and spur the development of “smart city” initiatives.

The city’s main platform, Open Baltimore, shares an encompassing data catalog of over 2000 types of data, from information about arrests, worker salaries, building uses and neighborhood statistics. The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance conducts continual reporting (compiled in a report called Vital Signs), that has helped to create an open dialogue about the city’s challenges and areas of success. Their publicly available data on the city’s demographics, education, arts/culture and other indicators has highlighted problems and allowed for a conversation about race and opportunity that has not been possible elsewhere.This is of major consequence when the U.S. faces one of the most divisive race climates in decades. The open approach to data expands to other areas, notably — even to the city’s waterfront trash wheel (who has become a celebrity himself). This commitment to open data and transparency is further reflected in B’SMART, Baltimore’s Smart City initiative. B’SMART takes advantage of the multiple data sources already deployed by the city, and seeks to address the city’s inefficiencies (such as broadband availability). The smart city outlook is already making an impact in the community: local accelerator Conscious Venture Lab’s most recent cohort on Urban Resilience and Smart Cities has just launched West Baltimore’s Innovation Village.

Support for immigrants and diversity is important as immigrants in the U.S. play a considerable role in the US tech workforce ( significantly at Amazon), This international workforce will be comfortable in a city that has long dedicated itself to diversity and championing newcomers. Baltimore has a long history of black civic leadership, and the Mayor’s office has long worked to develop links to the city’s immigrant community, instituting a “Welcoming Week” and offering small business loans for prospective immigrant entrepreneurs. The city has also worked comprehensively with groups such as the International Rescue Committee to resettle refugees in Baltimore and help them buy homes. The city’s office of sustainability supports a number of initiatives to help Black entrepreneurs and business owners. Other opportunities for these groups find support here, for example the Maryland Technology Development Corp. and Harbor Bank operate a Minority Business Pre-Seed Fund for budding tech entrepreneurs.

The spirit of entrepreneurship begins early in Baltimore, as the Mayor’s office has worked to promote entrepreneurship among teens and young people. The city’s local startup scene is fueled by the region’s local tech talent and enhanced by it’s diversity. Last year, Maryland companies raised over $300 million in VC funding, and the city is home to key funders such as the Propel Baltimore Fund, Greenspring Associates and the Baltimore Angels. The Baltimore Angels encapsulate an important quality about the city, namely the importance that many in the community have towards investing locally (although the Angels do fund ventures outside the city). This community spirit is seen in Under Armour founder Kevin Plank’s $5.5 billion investment in the city’s Port Covington development, a mixed use space that aims to position Baltimore as a center for the 21st century digital economy. Plank’s investment in Baltimore is more than just infrastructure — the CEO is working comprehensively to brand Baltimore the “ coolest city in the world”.

It would be negligent to tout Charm City’s “charms” without recognizing its challenges. In some respects, these are considerable. Crime is among the most public ( 35 homicides in the last 30 days) negative qualities of the city. Parts of the city are dangerous, and in any given night, it is estimated 2,600 people will be sleeping on the city’s streets. Baltimore also suffers from acres of vacant housing, poor housing diversity, policing issues (Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015) and population decline. Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren’s Equality of Opportunity Project examining poverty and social mobility found Baltimore to be one of the worst places in the entire country for children to escape poverty. Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander’s longstanding and celebrated research has shown how the city suffers from entrenched racial and gender inequalities, stratifying life chances for the city’s children.

But these challenges are precisely where the Amazon bid could make the most difference.

By coming to Baltimore, Amazon’s presence would give back to the community in more ways than just financial. Baltimore is the nation’s largest city without a Fortune 500 Company. Cities that are home to Fortune 500 firms benefit from employment, tax benefits, to local business support and philanthropy. In comparison to other large metro areas, Baltimore has long lacked an economic partner on this scale. Amazon would benefit from this considerable vacancy, and their presence would be felt immediately. Their entrance would help to support local companies, create new entrepreneurship opportunities and spur economic development along many sectors and wage levels. The company’s large, educated workforce could also help serve as mentors and positive role models in the wider community. The visibility of these mentors and role models would give back to a city that has suffered the effects of poor social mobility, and diminished opportunity. Amazon would also benefit from the chance to employ this city’s diverse and multinational workforce, which could help it build more conscious and inclusive products and address the prevalence of poor minority hiring in tech. Amazon workers could also buy and develop the city’s thousands of vacant buildings, helping to revitalize communities and support local development. While measures would need to be put in place to prevent gentrification and displacement, this case presents multiple chances for both a company and a city to work constructively together.

One company’s entrance cannot change entrenched problems of social mobility, poverty and crime. But Amazon’s involvement, alongside a number of considerable, ongoing local initiatives ( the Port Covington Project, Baltimore Entrepreneurs, #EveryStoryCounts — to name a few) could help make an incredible impact. The city already has all of the qualities Amazon is looking for. By bringing economic opportunity and the means to support a broad array community actions, this new HQ could make a real difference. The social benefits would be a real bonus.

Bezos has long used his businesses to invest in opportunity and change. While Amazon has been criticized for its role in dismantling small business and local communities, here is an opportunity where Amazon could build one up. It should take that chance.


Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on October 19, 2017.

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