How the winning community deals with the gains and pains holds lessons for any place hosting a booming industry.
No matter where you turn for news, it’s inescapable: the hullabaloo over “HQ2,” the frenzied competition to host Amazon’s second corporate headquarters. Hungry for the infusion of jobs and investment ($50 billion, at least), communities have promised everything from big tax breaks to free hamburgers for the 50,000 HQ2 staffers. It’s hard to overestimate the intensity of anticipation with which the 20 cities and regions that made the finalist list await the company’s choice of a winner.
But Seattle’s experience with HQ1 makes it clear: Hosting Amazon isn’t all puppies and rainbows. I lived in the Emerald City for more than 20 years, serving as the city’s first sustainability director for eight of them, and helped develop some of the plans and policies that lured Amazon from an old hospital building in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood into the downtown.
I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly as Amazon mushroomed from a tiny online bookstore into the world’s largest internet retailer. The good includes 45,000 jobs and the transformation of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood from a motley array of parking lots and warehouses into a thriving urban community. The bad includes jam-packed buses and roads (Seattle is ranked ninth worst in the country for traffic congestion) and an affordable-housing crisis rivaling San Francisco’s. Which gets us to the ugly: Skyrocketing prices are not only rendering Seattle housing out of reach for many but also exacerbating the challenge of homelessness: Seattle now has the country’s third-largest population of homeless people.
The gains and the pains of rapid growth aren’t unique to Seattle and Amazon, of course. It’s a familiar tale in many cities that find themselves hosting booming industries. So how can we learn from the Seattle/Amazon experience and manage big change in ways that optimize the good while eliminating (or at least minimizing) the bad and the ugly?