Recently, the dirty little secret about why Philadelphia was passed over in 2018 as the site for Amazon’s $5 billion, four million-square-foot, 50,000-job second headquarters came to light.
It wasn’t that we didn’t have a deep technology pipeline, generous tax incentives, or the density of talent, as conventional wisdom held at the time. Nor was it our punishing poverty rate or stifling wage tax.
Rather, it appears to have come down to a banal juvenile schoolyard professional football team rivalry of the Eagles vs. the Giants, if reviews of a new book on Jeff Bezos by Brad Stone, Amazon Unbound, are to be believed.
Reports indicate that Philadelphia was one of three finalists for the new headquarters along with Chicago and Raleigh, N.C. Remarkably, Philadelphia prevailed out of a field of 238 entries — rising to the top and final tier before all of the recommendations of the professional selection team were upended by Amazon executives in favor of New York and Northern Virginia, with Philly overlooked due to a supposed distaste of Eagles fans.
Despite this tantalizing window into the world of Bezos, Philadelphians should be proud of the effort to lure Amazon to our city. The polished and professional 108-page pitch was led by the combined efforts of the Department of Commerce and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. — a unified public-private effort to represent Philadelphia’s assets and strengths while not shying away from our shortfalls.
Styling our advantages in the form of a press release, the pitch touted Philadelphia’s talent pool, strategic location, livability, and plethora of sizable building sites available as reasons to make Philadelphia Amazon’s second home.
This reminder of our competitive strengths couldn’t come at a more important time as we pivot to a post-COVID-19 Philadelphia.
Conventional wisdom today holds that the return to the office will be slow and episodic, with as much as 25% of the workforce choosing to remain working remotely in some parts of the country. Reports of the death of Midtown Manhattan have circulated throughout the popular press.
We don’t buy these tropes. Cities are resilient vessels for humankind’s finest aspirations, talents, and advancements. They are here to stay.
And the Amazon HQ2 pitch can be the playbook for Philadelphia’s post-COVID-19 renaissance.
It tells a story of a city on the rise, with a dynamic research and development sector centered on gene therapy and precision medicine, smart textiles, and robotics. It presents a highly educated workforce living in walkable neighborhoods with a strong public transit system. It speaks to our resilient, inland location as protected from hurricanes and geologic fault lines and a “shared commitment to sustainability.” It offers our significant regional talent pool, our central location on the Northeast Corridor, our quality of life and livability, and our world-class cultural and educational institutions as reasons to seriously consider Philadelphia as a great place to establish business roots.
Today, with the global pandemic, economic freefall, and racial reckoning of 2020 fresh in our minds, the Amazon bid gives us an opportunity to lay the groundwork for an equitable, just, and lasting recovery.
For the Amazon bid was always more than just a pitch to Amazon. It demonstrated the power of collective action in lifting Philadelphia up in the eyes of the world as a city with dynamism, energy, and a sound future.
This might be the pot of gold at the end of the Amazon rainbow.
For the bid taught us that we are better than the sum total of our perennial self-doubts. It taught us that we can take honest stock of ourselves and stand head and shoulders with the best in class.
Our obligation, therefore, is to meet this historic moment and harness our substantial advantages — marrying economic justice with growth that benefits all through pipelines to employment, access to capital, and the creation of generational wealth for historically disadvantaged Philadelphians.
Only once this is accomplished will Philadelphia truly be able to stand as an equal amongst giants.
Alan Greenberger is the vice president for real estate and facilities at Drexel University. He served as deputy mayor for economic development and director of commerce for the City of Philadelphia from 2009-2016. Harris Steinberg is the executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University.