November 23, 2017

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Amazon dreams out of Manitoba's reach

Amazon.com is seeking a home for its new headquarters.

PAUL SAKUMA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Amazon.com is seeking a home for its new headquarters.

From a civic-boosterism perspective, the ambition is admirable.

From a political-opportunism angle, the enthusiasm is predictable.

But in realistic terms, the declaration by local leaders that Winnipeg could be a contender in the race to become the site of Amazon.com’s second headquarters in North America seems like pipe-dreaming of the highest order.

The Seattle-based online retail giant announced last week that it is seeking proposals from state, provincial and local governments interested in becoming the location of “HQ2,” which will eventually represent a US$5-billion investment and is expected to recruit up to 50,000 full-time employees with average salaries exceeding US$100,000.

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From a civic-boosterism perspective, the ambition is admirable.

From a political-opportunism angle, the enthusiasm is predictable.

But in realistic terms, the declaration by local leaders that Winnipeg could be a contender in the race to become the site of Amazon.com’s second headquarters in North America seems like pipe-dreaming of the highest order.

The Seattle-based online retail giant announced last week that it is seeking proposals from state, provincial and local governments interested in becoming the location of "HQ2," which will eventually represent a US$5-billion investment and is expected to recruit up to 50,000 full-time employees with average salaries exceeding US$100,000.

The fact the U.S. company is accepting bids from Canada and Mexico might be a reflection of founder/CEO Jeff Bezos’s disagreement with U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

A few Canadian cities, including Toronto and Ottawa, are considered legitimate contenders in the HQ2 location derby.

Winnipeg is not, but the provincial government issued a press release last Saturday in which Premier Brian Pallister called for a "Team Manitoba" effort to lure Amazon to Manitoba, citing the province’s central location, transportation infrastructure, green energy and low cost of doing business as obvious advantages.

But despite the "go for it" attitude of the premier and Mayor Brian Bowman, Winnipeg falls short on several of Amazon’s fundamental HQ2 requirements.

In the request for proposals issued by Amazon, the first stated preference is for "Metropolitan areas with more than one million people." Unless one is willing to stretch the definition to include the entirety of Manitoba as a metropolitan area, that’s a significant problem.

In finding a home for HQ2, the tech giant would also favour "Communities that think big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options." It isn’t unfair to suggest Winnipeg’s recent history when it comes to real-estate development, urban renewal projects and mass-transit infrastructure falls short of any reasonable definition of "think big."

The technology website GeekWire did an assessment of 59 North American communities that are potential HQ2 sites, based on such factors as population, business-friendly environment, urban/suburban potential to attract and retain technical talent, housing prices and ease of transport for people and goods.

Toronto topped the list and Ottawa was close behind. Montreal also landed in the Top 10, with Vancouver ranking 11th on GeekWire’s list. Calgary and Edmonton are also mentioned, but Winnipeg is not.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In addition to being a huge commercial/industrial project offering, Amazon’s HQ2 invitation also amounts to one of the most aggressive public demands for corporate-welfare handouts in recorded history. The company is requiring site-host applicants to outline tax credits and exemptions, relocation grants, fee reductions and other financial incentives that will help define the winning bid.

As a province and city in the midst of aggressive budget-control initiatives, fanciful notions that this could be the site of Amazon’s HQ2 must be accompanied by a clear-eyed examination of the up-front fiscal realities.

The hard truth is that Winnipeg is probably not a prime choice for Amazon, and Amazon’s demands far outstretch Winnipeg’s corporate-wallet capabilities.

But perhaps dreaming about HQ2 might lead to a productive discussion of how a snail’s-pace approach to innovation, imagination and decisive action has affected local planning.

And even if HQ2 is located elsewhere, Winnipeggers can still enjoy the luxury of free 48-hour shipping by subscribing to Amazon Prime.

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