The Amazon race: Now it gets interesting

By Chicago Tribune

It’s no surprise Chicago made the cut Thursday as a finalist for Amazon’s second headquarters. This city is a global business capital with a strong tech industry presence. Chicago would be a great fit for Amazon.

Still, when the announcement was made we scanned the field of 20 locales with trepidation, because we remember the Olympic bidding debacle (Chicago shockingly axed in the first round). We also have no sense of how Amazon assesses this city’s strengths vs. its weaknesses as a place to invest billions and hire tens of thousands.

Amazon’s list turns out to be not very revelatory about any city’s chances. The company outgrew pricey Seattle and wants a second base of operations in which to employ up to 50,000 workers, including many software engineers. So name a major city not near Seattle that has some combination of a deep tech labor pool, lower cost of living, strong universities and good quality of life. Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, the Washington, D.C., area all seemed likely candidates from the start, and all made the cut, along with New York, Denver and others.

Interestingly, Indianapolis is on there, too.

That’s Indianapolis as in Indiana, Illinois’ nemesis to the east, where job growth, lower taxes and fiscally responsible government look awfully attractive compared to this state’s high costs and deep dysfunction. Consider Indianapolis’ appearance on the list a direct warning to Illinois: Being a great city on a lake may be attractive, but it may not be enough.

Is Chicago ready in the next round to win Amazon’s affections? The handicapping of cities now intensifies, along with the lobbying. Atlanta’s got lots of space but weak mass transit. New York is New York, but the subways are crumbling. Boston’s got brains, but it’s expensive. Washington’s a government town, yet Amazon also included suburban Virginia and Maryland, which suggests strong interest in the region.

And Chicago?

This city has a lot of what Amazon wants, but as we note regularly, often with vented spleen, the state has big unresolved problems employers don’t want anything to do with: a $130 billion state pension crisis, the worst credit rating of any state, high taxes, an abundance of regulatory red tape thrown at businesses and Springfield gridlock that prevents progress.

There still may be time for Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and other lawmakers to step up and show Amazon this state understands and welcomes employers. On paper, the trio support Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s sales pitch. State and local officials have offered a slate of government incentives that should catch Amazon’s eye.

What we know for certain is Amazon’s competition to win the location of a second headquarters will transform whatever city is anointed. Imagine the positive impact on Chicago over 20 years of adding 50,000 high-paying jobs.

But the challenges and opportunities facing Illinois are about more than Amazon. This is a turbulent moment, and Illinois either capitalizes on it or, as has happened for many years, gets left behind:

The U.S. economy is on the move. Unemployment is low. Companies are investing. The impact of tax reform and deregulation by President Donald Trump and Congress is real. Apple says it’s planning a second headquarters, too, in an unspecified location. Emanuel wants to compete for that project, too. Opportunities for Illinois to ride the winds of strong investment and job growth don’t happen every day. They are happening right now. Can Illinois take advantage of this moment by making itself more attractive? Will Chicago benefit?

Or, as with other megaprojects that have gone to other states, will Illinois — and its government leaders — lose?

It’s no surprise Amazon is looking here. Whether Amazon chooses or rejects Chicago will say a lot about the state’s future as a home to employers and jobs.

By Chicago Tribune