Amazon’s imprimatur

Sep 20, 2017 at 10:36 am
New Amazon headquarters

When Amazon wunderkind Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million, it was arguably the newspaper’s salvation.

Could Bezos do the same for Louisville?

Amazon’s announcement that it is searching for a city for a second headquarters hooked many Louisvillians who think it’s just what we need to obtain human and capital resources so we can finally add to our manufacturing and corporate jobs with more focus on technology.

But detractors seemed to be adopting a “be careful what you wish for” approach, warning that Amazon could bring with it gentrification and congestion — change!

The question of “to grow or not to grow” is not novel here. The good news is what Louisville lacks in opportunity it makes up for in determination. If we are anything, we are “The Little Engine That Could.” And if we had light rail and direct flights to major metropolitan cities to conduct our business and outreach, our Little Engine could be a real city.

But at what price?

The typical middle class family is earning an average of $59,000, according to Heather Long, a Washington Post economics writer. Long said in a radio interview almost every demographic group saw a pretty sizable earnings uptick in the past two years. The downside of the uptick, Long said, is a huge disparity in earnings by race (and don’t get me started about women). African-American families’ average national earnings are $39,000 and Hispanic and Latino families earn an average of $47,000, Long reported.

Some argue the uptick could continue here if Amazon built in Louisville.

Among those favoring Amazon in Louisville is Jeffrey Smith, most recently PR and strategic partnerships lead at Discogs, the database and music marketplace. “A new reality means a new opportunity,” Smith said in retrospect about his Facebook post that kicked off a long thread reflecting the debate and controversy.

I asked Smith for a summary of the reasons offered in the thread against having Amazon build here. “The main thing I took away from it is Louisvillians are scared. They want the cultural impact and the cool stuff [Austin offers, for example] but fear all of the things a city has because of it,” Smith said.

“The price of everything is going to go up,” Smith said. “The people that benefit the most are those that are already here and have secured their spot.”

Smith is one of those people. He is white, male and as hip as they come. He is also strategic and visionary, qualities that have fueled his success in this city that sleeps, but part of which also stays open until 4 a.m.

He also said he “comes from the sticks,” and knows what it’s like to be poor. Smith grew up in southeastern Kentucky with food stamps and government cheese at times. He believes people all over the state are afraid of what our economic future holds and desperate for investment and jobs. He thinks Amazon choosing Louisville for its headquarters could change that.

“Amazon comes in, and it puts a stamp of approval on the state,” Smith said. The Jeff Bezos benefit would inure not only to Louisville, but to the state as a whole. His theory is the Amazon shot would indicate “Kentucky as a state is investable,” he said. “Amazon would allow us to flex the cool muscle and bring that [investment] in,” he continued.

Amazon said it would create 50,000 jobs wherever it locates the second headquarters. Here is a short list of what Smith said could come from it: Grocery stores in the urban core, more hotels, families who spend money when they visit new residents for a tourism boost, new denizens who start a business incubator because they love the state. “Those things aren’t guaranteed, but they’ll happen,” Smith said.

“We have seen this thing kind of cycle through before. Again it’s a bunch of unknowns but at the same time if you don’t make a run at it you’ll never know.”