Why Vancouver deserved a better shot at hosting Amazon’s HQ2

There must be worse options than Vancouver for Amazon's second HQ

Credit: Kagan McLeod

The 238 cities and regions vying to be the site of Amazon’s new headquarters have produced some creative sales pitches

During the Renaissance, most of what is now the Italian peninsula was divided into city states. They fought wars, sometimes against foreign powers, sometimes against each other. When the skirmish was over and one city had triumphed, it would claim the spoils of victory. Of course this was hundreds of years ago, and things were different—back then victory was not referred to as “getting the new Amazon headquarters.” Otherwise, not much has changed.

When Jeff Bezos announced plans to build a second head office for Amazon.com Inc. to augment its existing base in Seattle, cities all over North America girded their loins for battle. With 50,000 jobs and an estimated $US5 billion of investment up for grabs, the strategies were mapped out like D-Day campaigns. Amazon initially reported that 238 cities and regions had put in bids. (Among the places that didn’t bother: North Dakota. The retail giant has specified that it wants a centre of at least one million people and a place that offers a good quality of life. North Dakota’s largest city, Fargo, has about 120,000 residents, and, based on what we know from movies and TV, a disturbingly high percentage of them are vicious killers. They must have known they had no chance.)

Most cities trying to attract industry paint pictures of themselves as pleasant burgs full of decent, mildly progressive folks and streets that are pleasingly pothole-free. But a councillor of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, took a more futuristic approach. His pitch to Amazon depicted a post-apocalyptic hellscape in which climate change has spread wildfires and drought over the Prairies while monster hurricanes and rising seas ravage coastal cities. In the midst of this devastation and despair sits Sault Ste. Marie—the Happiest Temperate Zone on Earth.

City councillor Matthew Shoemaker, who says he got his information from the Popular Science website, claimed that the Sault will remain largely untouched by global warming while other locales suffer. Safe and sound, Amazon employees would stroll to and from work whistling happy tunes—perhaps whistling a little louder to drown out the screams and pleas for help from Toronto and Detroit and so on. It left open the question of just what Amazon would be selling to the outside world—bottled water, freeze-dried food and fire extinguishers, probably.

Out-of-the-way cities sold themselves based on their wonderful small-town qualities, leaving out the unavoidable reality that 50,000 jobs and $5 billion might be expected to land on a small city like a rhinoceros on a balloon.

And here is true love—the city of Stonecrest, Georgia, offered to change its name to Amazon, Georgia. More towns may be choosing to keep their own names these days, but darn it, the good people of Stonecrest are traditionalists.

Naturally, Vancouver also made its pitch. What were its chances? According to the website Sperling’s Best Places, it was the worst place. Dead last. On a list of 64 potential Amazon HQ2 sites, Vancouver was ranked No. 64. That’s 42 places behind Detroit, whose civic motto is “A Different Water Supply Than Flint.” Vancouver even finished behind Newark, New Jersey.

As it turned out, Vancouver really was a bad bet—it didn’t make Amazon’s subsequent short list of 20 cities. But were we really the worst choice for Amazon? Hardly. Consider: if the councillor of Sault Ste. Marie is correct and climate change does portend doom for coastal centres, Amazon is sure to build a massive wall around Seattle, and that wall could simply have been extended to take us in, too. Probably cheaper than building another one somewhere else.

And that’s not all. In some very important ways, Vancouver was Amazon-ready. A smaller centre will surely suffer tremendous disruption if a new Amazon HQ were to arrive—soaring real estate prices, traffic congestion, lack of overall affordability. Vancouver already has all that stuff. No biggie. Local TV newscasts could just recycle their usual lead stories about the growing housing crisis. New Amazon staff could probably even afford to occupy local Airbnb rental units and pay by the night, solving that controversial issue as well. Everybody wins.

Except Vancouver didn’t. Ah, well. Maybe we can change our name to Googleville?