Over the next several weeks, The Ringer will be documenting the various desperate strategies cities are using in the competition to land Amazon’s massive second headquarters. The Thirst Tracker will catalog the stunts local officials are using to woo Amazon, explore some of the ways thirst manifests itself in economic development deals, and dig into how Amazon is changing city infrastructure and community planning.
Imagine you’re the mayor of a major U.S. city. Your city is cool, but also affordable. Fun, but also enterprising. “Diverse,” but also undergirded by a series of pernicious education and housing policies that ensure it doesn’t get too “diverse.” A classic American town.
As you’re mindlessly scrolling through Instagram one day as part of your mayoral duties, your thumb instinctively freezes on an eye-catching picture. It’s Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (shirtless? We’ll say shirtless) posing nonchalantly on top of a pile of 50,000 jobs. Acting like those 50,000 jobs aren’t right there in your face. And they’re not just any jobs; these are white-collar jobs that pay more than $100,000, on average. How could you not press Like and also send Bezos a DM to offer him billions of dollars in tax incentives?
Congratulations, you’ve just fallen prey to the most alluring thirst trap in the history of corporate America. When Seattle-based Amazon announced earlier this month that it was building a second headquarters that would house tens of thousands of well-paid workers, the company invited cities across North America to submit in-depth proposals explaining why they’d be the perfect fit for the online retailer. These sorts of business development deals are usually conducted in private, but Amazon decided a headline-grabbing, public free-for-all was the best way for local public servants to spend their time this fall. It’s The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games meets the short-lived 1999 game show Greed.
To be fair, Amazon was clear about the qualities it’s looking for in a town. Gotta be smart, with a collection of prestigious universities that can help seed the company’s growing administrative workforce. Gotta prove you’re rich (or at least willing to fake it) by offering generous financial incentives, some of which may involve passing new laws to amend state or local tax codes. And of course, size matters: If you’re not packing at least 1 million residents in your metropolitan area, keep it moving. Given these criteria (as well as others, such as proximity to an international airport and lots of land for Amazon to set up shop on), there are probably half a dozen locations that make sense. Maybe another half dozen worth granting an outside shot to. Yet somehow, more than 100 cities have said they plan to respond to Amazon’s request for proposals, from New Haven, Connecticut, to Fresno, California.
How are they all making their interest known? With displays of shameless, unquenchable thirst. Thirst does not abide by the rules of logic or social propriety. A person who is thirsting knows that their chances of wooing the man, woman, or tech giant of their dreams are slim. They know what they’re doing is more than a little embarrassing. But they don’t care because the democratizing power of the internet has convinced them that a once-unattainable figure just might notice them, if they say exactly the right thing. Thirst is a cruel master, though, rendering the thoroughly parched highly inarticulate. Often the thirster can communicate only via extremely obvious emoji. Consider Huntsville mayor and Alabama Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Tommy Battle’s response to the Amazon HQ2 announcement:
Like the setter of any thirst trap, Amazon knew exactly what it was doing when it put its goods up for public consumption. The company has a penchant for ginning up tons of free, positive press about its future plans; remember how it turned a 60 Minutes segment into an infomercial for its theoretical drone-delivery business in 2013? “I suspect Amazon either already knows where it’s going to go or already has its very short list,” says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.–based organization that tracks government subsidies. “If 100 cities are going to actually going go through the drill of jumping through all the hoops in the [request for proposal], it’s just an incredible amount of goodwill and everybody saluting Jeff Bezos and doing his site-location work for him.”
As for local officials, many of them are likely courting Amazon for reasons besides trying to land HQ2. A fall in the number of economic development deals in recent years means mayors and governors have fewer opportunities to bolster their political standing with shiny new factories or corporate headquarters. Going after Amazon is a signal to voters and other corporations that a city is serious about attracting new jobs. “This is an economic development director’s dream,” says Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who focuses on cities and the tech sector. “The bid for HQ2 is a publicity boon for Amazon, and it’s also a publicity boon for cities that kind of want to show off their stuff and really make a case for why they’re a viable place to locate a dynamic knowledge-economy company.”
That’s a fancy way of saying, “The thirst is real.” Grab a refreshing beverage and marvel at the schemes cities are willing to hatch once a dry spell becomes unbearable.
Metro-Area Population: 4.7 million
Top School: Arizona State University (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report)
Best Cultural Attraction: Musical Instrument Museum (as ranked by TripAdvisor)
Thirstiest Quote: “We might have ... to see if we can get the Legislature to change the name to ‘Phoenix, Amazona.’”
Offering to change the name of your city to appeal to the vanity of a corporation is old hat; Topeka was briefly rechristened Google, Kansas, in order to persuade the company to build out its new Fiber internet service there. But the CEO of Phoenix’s economic council was so bold as to suggest that the state of Arizona change its name to “Amazona” so that Bezos could be confident that everyone within a 114,000-square-mile range had implicitly pledged fealty to him. Hopefully he’s also really into ancient Chinese flutes.
Metro-Area Population: 5.8 million
Top School: Emory University
Best Cultural Attraction: Georgia Aquarium
Thirstiest Quote: “You have to put lust in their hearts.”
Atlanta has emerged as a legitimate front-runner in the quest to nab HQ2. That’s not a surprise to me. As I write this, construction workers are building a Sprouts organic grocery store across the street from my apartment. By the time Amazon begins work on its new home in 2019, all the amenities a West Coast tech worker could dream of should be in place, including an incredibly popular Major League Soccer team, an arsenal of craft breweries, and the aforementioned carefully controlled “diversity.” But that may not be enough, according to Georgia’s former commissioner of industry, trade, and tourism R.K. Sehgal. He told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist that state officials should subsidize private-school education for Amazon employees’ kids, then pay for their way through college as well. Will guaranteeing that mostly privileged children don’t have to touch the public school system engender lust in the heart of Bezos, as Sehgal hopes? That is a question I hope to never be able to answer.
Metro-Area Population: 1 million
Top School: University of Arizona
Best Cultural Attraction: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Thirstiest Quote: “We just wanted to make sure our friends in Seattle noticed us, and provide a good home to our landmark cactus.”
Giving physical gifts to strangers in order to make them like you is a clear sign that your thirst is becoming a danger to yourself and others. So we better keep a watchful eye on Tucson, which delivered a 21-foot Saguaro cactus to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters as a strange sign of affection. Local officials likely should have followed the advice of rapper and cultural anthropologist Cardi B, who has issued a guide on proper thirst-trap decorum: “Show me that you’re looking but you’re not that thirsty.” Amazon, sensing excessive yearning, regifted the cactus.
Metro-Area Population: 2.3 million
Top School: Carnegie Mellon University
Best Cultural Attraction: PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates
Thirstiest Quote: “Pittsburgh would be a much better headquarters choice than many other likely contenders, including … Houston, now under water.”
When a thirst trap manages to catch a lot of people at once, the captured prey may lash out at each other in frustration over the fact that they cannot claim their desired prize. That’s the only explanation for this insulting column from the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The piece spends a paragraph bashing Philadelphia for its “abject poverty,” St. Louis for its “racial strife,” and Detroit for its less-educated labor pool (Pittsburgh, we’re told, has “reasonably good race relations”). However the 360-degree dunk is leveled on Houston, which can’t compete because it is “now under water.” One city’s utter devastation is apparently another city’s economic gain. This is not a cute look, Pittsburgh.
Brooklyn, New York
Population: 2.6 million
Top School: New York University (which has a Brooklyn campus)
Top Cultural Attraction: Brooklyn Bridge
Thirstiest Quote: “Brooklyn’s innovation coast from Williamsburg to Sunset Park.”
The moment you’ve felt the need to claim a portion of your city most prominently known for congregating overpriced food trucks is an “innovation coast,” you’ve succumbed to a reality distortion field. Thirsty folks habitually exaggerate their own credentials in order to attract attention. Brooklyn doesn’t need the extra hype; it’s a fast-growing borough with tons of stuff to do that can sell itself to potential employees on name alone (Amazon floated “quality of life” as an ambiguous but important decision factor). But Bezos is likely to be leery of the fast-rising rents, and New York’s ongoing subway problems undercut one of the city’s key selling points.
Metro-Area Population: 6.1 million
Top School: Georgetown University
Top Cultural Attraction: Lincoln Memorial
Thirstiest Quote: “Alexa, where is the most interesting company in the world going to locate?”
Amazon has even managed to get the seat of American political power wagging its tongue. In a Twitter video that managed to simultaneously promote D.C. and Amazon products, Mayor Muriel Bowser rattled off the reasons the nation’s capital is the best location for HQ2 (among them: Amazon could be based in two places called “Washington”). Then she asked an Amazon Echo where the world’s most interesting company should open its new headquarters (I have my suspicions that one of D.C.’s spy agencies coerced Alexa into a predictable response):
Multimedia thirst would deserve some level of respect if the town of Danbury, Connecticut, (population: 85,000) hadn’t beaten D.C. to the Echo gimmick by a few hours.
Metro-Area Population: 4.3 million
Top School: University of Michigan (in nearby Ann Arbor)
Top Cultural Attraction: Detroit Institute of Arts
Thirstiest Quote: “Within an hour, I get a call from Dan Gilbert.”
Detroit business magnate and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert gets passionate when people decide to move. So it’s no surprise that he was on the phone with Mayor Mike Duggan less than an hour after Amazon’s plans were announced. He who thirsts strategically, rather than impulsively, may have a greater chance of success. Apparently Michigan Governor Rick Snyder also immediately jumped into the strategizing, even though he was on a bus in Japan in the middle of the night when the Amazon news dropped. Between employees of Gilbert and the government, Detroit already has 100 people working on an Amazon proposal. Like every other town, the city will have until October 19 to submit a proposal, but we’ll all have to wait until 2018 to hear where Jeff Bezos plans to take his talents. The decision will have the biggest potential to change a city’s future prospects since, well, The Decision.