Editorial: Win or lose, Amazon bid is worthwhile

The Detroit News

Detroit’s bid for the second Amazon headquarters is off to Seattle, where executives of the online merchandiser will weigh its merits against 100 or so other proposals from communities eager to win this economic plum. The city’s bid is admittedly a long shot, falling short in some key areas on Amazon’s wish list.

But win or lose, it has been a valuable exercise that should set Detroit up well in competing for future projects.

The all-out nature of Detroit’s bid reflects the extraordinary impact Amazon could have on the region. The company plans to invest $10 billion and bring up to 50,000 good-paying jobs to the winning city.

Such an influx of dollars and workers could return Detroit quickly to its glory days.

The proposal was a regionwide effort, led by Quicken Loan Chairman Dan Gilbert. It included a slick video touting Detroit’s comeback story and sought to convince Amazon that this is a city with which it can grow.

As strengths, the proposal focuses, among other things, on the amount of available space in Detroit’s downtown area at a price that is cheap compared to most other cities.

It also touted the favorable tax incentive packages passed by the state Legislature earlier this year to attract major projects such as this.

Detroit’s strong ties to the auto industry is seen as a powerful draw for Amazon, which like most other tech companies is intensely interested in the development of autonomous vehicles.

The city’s pitch has an international component; Windsor, the Canadian city that sits just across the river from Detroit, is part of the proposal. The hope is that Amazon will appreciate access to Windsor’s high-tech workforce and that its more lenient immigration laws will allow it to attract top talent from around the world.

Detroit’s chances for landing Amazon also benefit from Michigan’s research universities, the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State University. Amazon already has strong ties to UM, as Crain’s Detroit Business reported Thursday. The Ann Arbor school is Amazon’s primary source for MBA hires.

On the negative side of the ledger, the lack of a comprehensive mass transit system hurts Detroit. The bid assures Amazon that the region will move swiftly to fix its transportation shortfalls, but other communities are well ahead in that key component.

Most of the competing cities also outpace this region in education attainment. Detroit has the smallest percentage of residents with a college degree among the Amazon bidding communities.

Detroit is an underdog in the competition. But its bid, with the international feature, synergy with the auto industry and ties to UM, might be intriguing enough to rise to the surface in Seattle.

Even if it doesn’t, the process of compiling the proposal has value. Matt Cullen, Gilbert’s development point man, noted that business people, political leaders, universities, foundations and others from across the region worked together to assess the region’s strengths — and weaknesses.

“It’s been tremendous the amount of cooperation and information that has been put into this thing, and then distilled and curated,” Cullen says. “All the work we’ve done is going to be available for the next time we pursue a project.”

If nothing else, Metro Detroit can now quantify exactly what it has to offer those looking for a place to invest such enormous amounts of money. And it also knows where it still needs work.