Keep Your Amazon Headquarters; Build Your Own Ecosystem

NY is paying $61,000 per job and Virginia is shelling out $796mm in tax incentives to land Amazon’s second headquarters.

I saw an article in the Tampa Bay Business Journal recently that caught my eye.

The headline was a show stopper for those of us who care about economic development and the use of public dollars: “Incentives are becoming less important than workforce.”

Which is another way of saying that today—maybe more than ever—talent rules. And the cities and regions that develop, nurture and attract talent will be the cities that win.

The Business Journal’s headline may sound funny in the midst of perhaps the biggest incentive gusher ever which was the pursuit of Amazon’s H2 headquarters and its promise of 50,000 jobs and billions in economic impact. Congratulations to our friends in Crystal City and Long Island City: the two winners of the Amazon sweepstakes who will split the prize.

But even amidst the gaggle of mayors who threw incentives Amazon’s way, the smart guess was that Amazon would choose a headquarters where executives believe they can hire from a deep pool of talent. Northern Virginia and New York City are both regions rich in tech talent.

But also playing into the decision was Amazon’s desire to be in a city or region where today’s and tomorrow’s workers will want to live.

I’m a passionate student of economic development and it’s endlessly fascinating to me how cities and regions work or don’t work.

I think the most successful places practice economic “gardening” which is an effort to grow your own companies rather than throw money chasing corporations that oftentimes take advantage of cities by threatening to leave if you don’t ante up.

If you grow your own and create an environment where companies would be foolish to leave, you won’t to have worry that someone else will steal your jobs by waving checks at CEOs.

So how do you create an environment conducive to economic gardening and how do you keep the garden healthy and sustainable?

I like the analogy of threads—you have to knit a fabric and build a community by adding to– not tearing at –the fabric of your city.

Threads include: good schools, a good support network for parents, strong and safe neighborhoods, a clean environment, great parks, recreational opportunities, a range of housing options, good transportation networks, strong and ethical governance, business friendly regulations, a people friendly or tolerant atmosphere, abundant art and culture, a sense of place, efficient and competent local government, great health care and the list goes on.

If you build a strong fabric and create a place that is brimming with opportunities– both economic and social—over time you will create a dynamic and sustainable environment that generates jobs by keeping and attracting talent.

Consequently, if you tear at the fabric by pulling threads, chasing away investment, making it hard to get established and hard to get rooted you will send a message to go elsewhere. In those types of places we send a clear message. We are essentially telling our children that ‘yes we raised you here, but there’s nothing for you here so go elsewhere as soon as you can.’

And we will tell outsiders that their investments are better spent elsewhere.

Growth and change are hot topics around these parts. Recently, the South Florida Business Journal reported that there was $950 million of projects underway in downtown Delray Beach. That’s both a source of angst and pride and I can understand both feelings.

Growth and change can be hard to swallow, especially if it swallows up what we like best about our towns. But growth and change are also inevitable. The best communities find a way to shape and manage growth and change.

The best cities also focus on the opportunities that growth and change can provide: they maximize benefits hopefully for as many people as possible, while minimizing impacts.

They talk through the tough issues, raise the level of discourse and do their best to build for the future.

In many ways, we are all stewards. We are here to leave a better place for those who come next. If we adopt a mindset that we need to be concerned about not only our quality of life but also that of others, we have a chance to create something good. But if we have an “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder” mentality we ensure that the future either drowns or heads elsewhere and that the boat we’re in will sink.

It’s better to swim than it is to sink.


One More Thought Inspired By McCain



“There are people whose leadership cannot be measured in their lifetime,” –Nancy Koehn, Harvard leadership professor and author.

Professor Koehn was speaking about Sen. John McCain who passed last month at the age of 81.

Rebel. Maverick. Patriot. War hero. McCain was all that and more.

His passing reminded us of what we have in common, what binds us together as Americans.

Democrats and Republicans rushed to praise Sen. McCain and for good reason. He was a special type of leader who spent a lifetime in service to his country.

We are living in age where service is either ignored or disparaged and that is not only wrong it’s deeply damaging.

We are attacking institutions, ideals and the notion of service through labels (“career politician”), irresponsible social media posts and by excusing reprehensible behavior as necessary to shake up a broken system.

We lose an awful lot when we allow these social spasms to pass without comment. We risk the loss of a common purpose and mission. We gamble with the loss of important standards and ideals and we put at risk the ability to take pride in our nation and its achievements when we trade decency for short term political gain or retribution.

Senator McCain’s passing reminds us how important it is to attract and retain serious people in service to our country.

I would argue that goes for cities and communities as well.

We need to attract and retain talent on the local level in order to build better communities for everyone.

I have always been enamored of leadership. I’ve seen what it can do to change a place—be it a neighborhood, a non-profit, a city or a business.

As a result, I’ve kept a close eye on leaders and watched to see how they make positive change occur and more importantly last.

But the importance of leadership never wanes, even when (maybe especially when) you achieve success. There is always a need to fill the pipeline with talented, dedicated and effective leaders.

If you fail to fill the pipeline no lead is safe. You will regress. If you fill the pipeline and view the development of people as the most important mission in the world than you will guarantee progress and success.

It’s a simple concept. But very hard to put into place.

So when I see cities, businesses, non-profits, neighborhood associations or schools regress it’s almost always a leadership issue. The symptoms vary, but the root cause is usually the same.

Every endeavor has its blips, setbacks, mistakes, errors etc., good leadership figures it out and overcomes.