In a scramble not seen since the 1940s, when cities and towns across the country competed for the right to host the United Nations, hundreds of hopeful jurisdictions have put in their bids to host Amazon’s second headquarters.  While oddsmakers are already projecting the favorites, it’s hard to predict what Amazon will do. It’s not too soon, however, to reflect on what the process tells us about the prevailing political economy and our role in it.

Amazon HDQ2 as envisioned in Camden County application

Philadelphia has been especially active in soliciting ideas for its bid, with good reason since the city can make a good case for its strategic location midway between Washington and New York, the access of prime sites close to public transportation, reasonable (at least by comparison) housing costs, and the presence of outstanding academic resources. With its location directly across the river and prime shovel-ready sites both north and south of the Ben Franklin Bridge, Camden has made some of the same arguments. In the larger context, however, both cities have been hobbled by their lack of coordination.

One could dismiss—as local officials have—Amazon’s request that bids be limited to one per region. The attitude of local officials has been that we’ll deal with that later if we have to. But buried in that lack of coordination are signs of vulnerability in both applications.

Just when Camden received a special boost from Inquirer columnist Kevin Riordan, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie undercut the city he has showered with largesse during his administration by making Newark’s bid the official state choice.  Moreover, Christie committed some $ 7 billion in subsidies to Newark’s application.

Philadelphia has had some experience in being outbid by New Jersey, when Christie induced the 76ers to locate its practice facility in Camden rather than the Navy Yard several years ago. Had Philadelphia and Camden teamed up, they might have leveraged their position to at least claim some of that $7 billion if chosen over Newark. Beyond money, however, there were further reasons for cooperation.

A key element of Amazon’s call for proposals was the requirement of affordable housing, and with good reason, according to Richard Florida’s recently published The New Urban Crisis.  Cities that have been successful in attracting the kind of highly educated workforce Amazon is looking for—Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, most notably–have seen housing costs escalate to near unaffordability, even for those projected Amazon workers making $100,000 a year.  To that list, we can add Seattle, according to a Washington Post report, and Amazon bears a good deal of the blame.

Were Amazon to locate in our region, there would be plenty of affordable housing choices on both sides of the river, though the influx of thousands of new workers would surely push up prices at the core. Both Camden and Philadelphia (and Chester as another city making a bid from the region) have substantial concentrations of poor population located not far from where Amazon would locate. Was either city explicit about what they would do to coordinate housing policy so that less wealthy citizens don’t get pushed out of their homes and, if given a choice, they could find affordable locations in nearby suburbs?  A regional submission taking into the account the secondary effects of job creation would have shown that local officials had thought seriously about how to deal with success.

And what about transportation?  An Amazon presence on both sides of the Delaware, linked by rail, would allow internal circulation of its employees, even as it would challenge regional officials to address commuting patterns. Would Amazon’s employees who chose to live outside the city utilize existing rail connections, or would they further clog the Schuylkill and Admiral Wilson Boulevard?

Finally, would it be desirable for Amazon to cluster on its own campus or locate across different parts of the region? We have something of an example in Comcast’s centralized facility. Perhaps not incidentally that company is not as engaged in the life of the region as one might hope. Amazon has a better chance of being a vital contributor to the elevation of our region’s standing if its headquarters is not isolated from the people and institutions around it. The more exposure in more places within the region, the better the chance that the company will be a problem solver, not simply one that happens to have a headquarters here.

The Philadelphia region remains fragmented and, because of  uneven development, operating under capacity.  Amazon’s choice to locate here would certainly be a boost. But as we consider what exactly might follow from such a decision, it’s worth evaluating our own proposals for how well we are anticipating the future, with our without Amazon in our presence.

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