Seven lessons from the Ama­zon bid

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Front Page - DAN HAAR

Cather­ine Smith’s phone rang on the morn­ing of Jan. 18, just as she was start­ing to see news of the fi­nal­ist cities for the Ama­zon sec­ond head­quar­ters pop up on her screen. It was Ama­zon call­ing.

The Con­necti­cut eco­nomic and com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment com­mis­sioner re­counted the con­ver­sa­tion this past week, now that Ama­zon has cho­sen New York and Washington, D. C., ( ac­tu­ally Crys­tal City, Va., just over the Po­tomac River) to share the cov­eted HQ2.

“Hey, we’re sorry you guys didn’t make the cut,” Smith re­counted.

The caller, a woman named Holly Sul­li­van, was en­cour­ag­ing. The two cities in Con­necti­cut’s of­fi­cial bids for the 50,000 jobs and up to 8 mil­lion square feet of of­fice space, Stam­ford and Hartford, weren’t big enough — although tech­ni­cally, they fit the re­quire­ment of an­chor­ing metro ar­eas of at least 1 mil­lion peo­ple.

No mid­size city among the fi­nal 20 ever had a shot — let alone any of the smaller cities on the re­ported list of some 238 that ap­plied. Ama­zon blew a chance to make a big dif­fer­ence and shape eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

But Smith and oth­ers in­volved in the bid­ding came away with good feel­ings as Ama­zon and oth­ers of­fered up­beat re­views. Dan­bury, Water­bury and a joint ef­fort from Bridge­port and New Haven sought the nod from Ama­zon di­rectly in ad­di­tion to the of­fi­cial Stam­ford and Hartford bids from the state.

Here are seven things we learned about our abil­ity to com­pete for big com­pa­nies go­ing for­ward.

Our cities can work to­gether, but we’re still frac­tured

“It was very help­ful to en­gage with the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment peo­ple through­out the state,” Smith said. The state is now adapt­ing its ex­cel­lent Ama­zon bid web­site, www. CTisPrime. com ( get it?)

for broader ef­forts to at­tract com­pa­nies. And in Smith’s view, the state’s suc­cess­ful lur­ing of In­dian IT firm In­fosys to Hartford, which will bring 1,000 jobs, re­flected the new spirit of co­op­er­a­tion.

As for Bridge­port and New Haven, they built on unity we’ve seen with the MGM Bridge­port casino bid over the last 14 months. “It broke some new ground in terms of re­gional co­op­er­a­tion,” Lau­rence Grotheer, spokesman for New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, said. Yes, we had five bids, but the Bos­ton area alone had a dozen towns bid­ding.

The up­shot: Con­necti­cut is still a bunch of small fief­doms, but Ama­zon showed we can pull to­gether, to a point.

Lack of an­other air­port hurts, but doesn’t kill

For north­ern Con­necti­cut, Bradley In­ter­na­tional Air­port, win­ner of some great recog­ni­tion lately, could have served Ama­zon well enough. “They wanted very spe­cific con­nec­tions,” said Ran­dal Davis, spe­cial as­sis­tant to Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sioner James Redeker. Air­lines would add flights at Bradley, and Stam­ford can rely on La­Guardia and JFK in New York.

But the ab­sence of a sig­nif­i­cant air­port along the shore­line def­i­nitely hurts Bridge­port and New Haven. “In pre­par­ing the bid, of­fi­cials were forced to talk more about Bradley and the New York air­ports and even Green,” said Grotheer, in New Haven, re­fer­ring to T. F. Green Air­port in Rhode Is­land, “be­cause Tweed has fallen be­hind.”

Harp fought in the Leg­is­la­ture for an ex­pan­sion of tiny Tweed- New Haven Air­port, but that’s con­tro­ver­sial. Like­wise, Igor Siko­rsky Me­mo­rial Air­port in Strat­ford, owned by the city of Bridge­port, is many years away from see­ing sched­uled com­mer­cial ser­vice. But one way or an­other, more has to hap­pen at one or both of these air­ports if big com­pa­nies are to eye the cen­tral shore­line cities.

Growth is headed to­ward us

To most of us, Ama­zon’s se­lec­tion of Long Is­land City, Queens — di­rectly across the East River from Mid­town Man­hat­tan — is no dif­fer­ent than any other lo­ca­tion in the city. To Joseph McGee, vice pres­i­dent of pol­icy at The Busi­ness Coun­cil of Fair­field County, it’s a step to­ward Con­necti­cut.

That’s be­cause the Ama­zon site is part of a wave of de­vel­op­ment east and north of Man­hat­tan. “I don’t think peo­ple in Con­necti­cut re­al­ize that de­vel­op­ment in Man­hat­tan … is spilling out east of the Hud­son,” said McGee, who was state eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment com­mis­sioner un­der for­mer Gov. Low­ell P. We­icker Jr. when cor­po­rate in­cen­tives ex­ploded in the early ’ 90s. “We’re linked … That’s the re­ally big story.”

Separately, it re­mains to be seen how many of the new Ama­zon em­ploy­ees de­cide to live in Con­necti­cut.

We need to work with New York on com­muter trains

Speak­ing of links, we’re see­ing com­muter rail progress but not enough — as the Ama­zon bids re­vealed.

In New York, a planned com­muter rail will con­nect New Rochelle and points south along a newly ex­panded “Hell Gate” spur to Penn Sta­tion on the East Side. This $ 1 bil­lion pro­ject would con­nect with new MTA sta­tions head­ing to Hunt’s Point in the South Bronx and, even­tu­ally, the Ama­zon site. All of this is good for Con­necti­cut; as McGee points out, 11,000 peo­ple com­mute from New York to work in Con­necti­cut. “We re­ally feel there needs to be a new re­gional com­pact be- tween New York and Con­necti­cut re­gard­ing trans­porta­tion,” McGee said.

“The New Haven Line is a two- state line and we need to be ab­so­lutely at the ta­ble.”

There are de­bates about the best ways to make that hap­pen and, more im­por­tant, de­bates about how to spend scarce dol­lars on up­grades to Metro- North. A new, $ 100 mil­lion park­ing garage in Stam­ford, pro­posed by the DOT, or spend that money on track im­prove­ments to speed trains? Com­pa­nies like Ama­zon want to see it all fit to­gether.

“In­fused in what they were look­ing for, mul­ti­modal trans­porta­tion was a key fac­tor,” said Ran­dal Davis, at DOT.

Qual­ity of life helps balance the fis­cal hang­over

Yeah, we all know Con­necti­cut is tens of bil­lions in the hole for pen­sions and health ben­e­fits. That can scare off com­pa­nies. But many folks see the state’s qual­ity of life balanc­ing costs bet­ter in the com­ing years. That in­cludes ac­cess to ev­ery­thing within a day’s round trip drive, lots of open space, less con­ges­tion and rel­a­tively low hous­ing costs, ex­cept in lower Fair­field County; and the state’s vaunted health, ed­u­ca­tion and cul­tural ad­van­tages.

“If you can’t find some­thing to do in Con­necti­cut, you’re lit­er­ally not try­ing,” Davis said. He called Hartford “nascent” and added, “we do have a good arts scene and that’s part of what they were talk­ing about.”

The goal is for us to stop beat­ing our­selves up. When an out­side group eval­u­ated all 200- plus bids and gave a pre­sen­ta­tion, Con­necti­cut had two of 12 slides, Smith said — in­clud­ing how the state de­scribed the qual­ity of life.

Stam­ford still has room to grow

The other slide high­light­ing Con­necti­cut’s bids in that na­tion­wide assess­ment was the drill- down of de­tail about avail­able lo­ca­tions in Stam­ford. The in­ter­ac­tive map, show­ing the past, present and fu­ture of the har­bor area, re­veals that there’s plenty of water­front space left down there, past Har­bor Point — in­clud­ing the old Pit­ney Bowes head­quar­ters.

That de­fies the old saw that Hartford of­fers avail­able space and Stam­ford of­fers ac­cess. “The ques­tion is how big does Stam­ford want to grow and that is a big dis­cus­sion here,” McGee said. “You have to look at not just land mass, but zoned land.”

We must fig­ure out the new econ­omy faster

Con­necti­cut knows its old- line cor­po­rate giants can’t de­liver job growth. Ama­zon told Cather­ine Smith the state should “ma­ture even more in your abil­ity to pro­vide tech tal­ent,” Smith re­calls.

“Since then we’ve been do­ing even more,” Smith said, nam­ing ini­tia­tives in Hartford and else­where. Com­pa­nies such as ge­net­ics tester Sema4 are adding jobs in Stam­ford. As with just about ev­ery­thing, we’ve made some progress but not enough.

“It is a very awk­ward time,” McGee said. “The new econ­omy that’s emerg­ing here is not fully formed yet.”

In Dan­bury, Mayor Mark Boughton touted the city’s rel­a­tively young av­er­age age, an hour from New York. And Boughton gained some no­tice, along with good­na­tured rib­bing, with an Ama­zon video that was first out of the gate last year. Dan­bury geo­tagged the video around the Ama­zon head­quar­ters in Seat­tle. “They kind of knew we were out there, so we got a nice call,” Boughton said — re­flect­ing smart use of tech­nol­ogy, a sign of what the state needs to do.

Getty Images

A view of the water­front of Long Is­land City in the Queens bor­ough of New York.

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