Amazon's Beauty Contest

by Gord Hume

There was something vaguely unsettling about Amazon's call to cities for proposals for its new second headquarters. The bid deadline closed last week.

The civic beauty pageant brought out a couple of hundred hungry cities who used various forms of ingenuity, imagination, incentives (bribes, some might say), and desperation to get this prize of millions of dollars of investment and thousands of local jobs.

It is completely understandable that mayors and economic development managers went over the top. Cities don't get a chance to bag an elephant very often, and there is no doubt that this is about as big a win as a city could get.

Despite the parameters set out by Amazon for its bidding, many communities blithely ignored the conditions about population size, public transportation, university access and other conditions. I have no idea what was spent by cities, states and provinces on this bid process—I think it was Virginia that dealt a million dollar contract to a prominent consulting firm just to assist its cities—but it will certainly be many millions of dollars.

It is hard to believe that in the current political climate that Donald Trump has created in the US for "buy American" and the with troubled state of the NAFTA trade negotiations that Amazon would dare to cross an international border with an investment and the resulting jobs of this size. On the other hand, if you're not in the game you're never going to win, and that's what drove a dozen or more Canadian cities to submit bids.

I have a growing concern that Canada and Mexico are re-negotiating NAFTA in good faith based on economic and trade issues...but the US is negotiating based on Trump's ego and campaign rhetoric. Whether these two can ever come together is questionable. The potential impact on a lot of cities in Canada is immense.

All of that being said, when cities (or towns) are proposing things like renaming their entire community in honour of the President of Amazon, and some are offering huge incentives, you inevitably end up pitting city against city. That leaves a skin-crawling sensation because there are going to be a lot of disappointed civic officials.

Many years ago, when I was younger and stupider (hold the comments, please) I somehow got suckered into judging a baby contest at a county fair. I learned a hard lesson as I fled from the tent pursued by a bunch of angry mothers after the winner was announced—there is one winner and a whole bunch of losers.

There are going to be a lot of losers in this competition. Maybe the new HQ will be split into several cities or regions, maybe there will be new partnerships created (I thought the Detroit-Windsor bid was quite innovative) that will pay-off in the future, and perhaps cities will learn something from the process.

Still, there remains something a bit of a creepy about the whole procedure. It will be interesting to see what cities have to say after the winner is announced, and what they have learned.

Gord Hume


Gord Hume is recognized as one of Canada's leading voices on municipal government and is an articulate and thoughtful commentator on civic government and community issues. He is a very popular public speaker, an advisor to municipal governments, and a respected and provocative author.

Gord was elected to London City Council four times. He has had a distinguished career in Canadian business, managing radio stations and as Publisher of a newspaper. Gord received two “Broadcaster of the Year' awards. He is now President of Hume Communications Inc., a professional independent advisor to municipalities.

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