Amazon: Choose San Austin

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Frank Fujimoto / Creative Commons

The Amazon biospheres in Seattle, Washington.

The great Amazon gold rush has begun. Clearly one of world’s largest corporations already, Amazon has once again attacked the business of headquarters relocations with its typical asymmetrical and disruptive fury.

By announcing it will build a second corporate and management complex to mirror its Seattle operations, in one stroke Amazon brought cities of every ilk into the chase for 50,000 highly paid jobs and the allure of a global technology giant staking its tent in the backyard.

The debate aside on the merits of Amazon as a good corporate citizen – and there is significant debate – winning this beauty contest would forever reset the economy and image of any city, no matter its size.

For San Antonio, a mid-tier city that saw global giant AT&T move to Dallas in 2008, being chosen by Amazon would be nothing short of finding a Holy Grail. Fact: Amazon’s planned corporate headquarters would dwarf every other corporate office ever located here by an order of magnitude and would legitimize San Antonio as worthy of its often-repeated position as the “7th largest U.S. city.”

As in numerous cities, many local leaders are busy readying the case for San Antonio. Others with experience have quietly noted that Don Quixote should travel elsewhere and City resources instead be reserved to help relocate companies where the chances of success are higher than with this “pipe dream.”

San Antonio has many positives attractive to any company, including Amazon. But by itself, the boxes that must be checked fall woefully short. One hurdle is San Antonio’s lack of a technology-driven talent pool, a box required by any global tech enterprise. The same, by the way, can be said about most cities now planning to travel to Seattle to make a pitch, including Austin. Each has its own shortcomings and most of which will be quickly relegated to bin when Amazon takes a close look.

But there is another less traveled road that few others could match and which could fundamentally change Amazon’s perception. More importantly, if taken, no matter the outcome of the Amazon race, this road could provide a truly transformative learning opportunity that could translate into a way forward in the future for South Texas to be able to mount a winning challenge against any city at any time for corporate and business opportunities.

Choose SA – in this case morphing from the familiar: Choose San Antonio into Choose San Austin.

A regional bid from Austin and San Antonio working in concert would be singularly disruptive – something Amazon prides above nearly all other. It would tick nearly all known boxes said to be required while also offering a bid that is unique, diverse, attractive and internationally positioned.

Two large international airports within approximately 1 hour of each other. Excellent highway systems tying the cities (and airports) together including both I-35 Corridor and Texas 130 Toll Corridor. Austin’s position as an internationally recognized tech center with a highly desired lifestyle image. San Antonio’s posture as a city with a strong low-cost work force, inexpensive cost of living and the closest historical, cultural and business ties in the U.S. to Mexico and Latin America – a market surely already on Amazon’s radar. Austin with UT, one of the country’s great public universities. San Antonio with Trinity, one of the best small private universities as well UTSA, one of fastest growing public universities now coming into its own. San Antonio with its strong medical, and emerging bio tech communities; a city well positioned as a primary center for the U.S. military and many associated contractors. Austin as the city where Whole Foods started, which is Amazon’s largest and arguably most important acquisition.

The many specifics aside, the case for a regional bid is at its core the case for the future of the region itself. For San Antonio and Austin to truly compete in the race for highly paid and skilled jobs, going it forever alone is simply not sustainable. No matter the pronouncement of its local leaders, neither will ever be as large, diverse, and rich as even its two Texas neighbors – Houston and Dallas, much less as historically formidable as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco. But beyond the provincial, the largest global companies have now pushed the battle to one between the best in the U.S. and the rest of the world: London, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Dubai, and likely not by chance, the place where Amazon now resides: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver.

The case for regional cooperation amongst neighbors is strong. As example, in 1970 there was a small, sea facing city in the middle of the desert with no more than 133,000 residents, many of which lived in wood slat reinforced mud huts. The city had a strong, centuries old historical position as a trading and fishing center but otherwise lacked most of the commonly known infrastructure of any major civilized city of its day. It also had little if any revenue from natural resources. However, it was tied by loose federation (and an at times a passable dirt road) with a neighbor city approximately 70 miles away with an even smaller, less “international” reputation but with the benefit of a recent discovery of oil. Fast forward less than 50 years. Dubai is positioned today as one of the world’s great global cities. It still has no oil. Its neighbor, Abu Dhabi, with a smaller population, has approximately 3 million barrels per day of oil production.

Over the course of 50 years, these two symbiotic (though clearly different) neighbors have built a corridor that is now an economic juggernaut. Yes, the oil helped. As did cheap labor and other actions that would never be allowed in most Western Countries.  But fundamentally, it was the vision amongst its leadership to use each cities’ strengths and interests to jointly create a region that helped drive growth to each for their respective benefits. They remain different cultures today and each have unique personalities tied to these cultural differences. They have both made errors working together as a region and separately as competitive cities. But even the casual observer would be hard pressed not to note their success, a product in large part of their ability to work together regionally.

In the past several years, many including at the local foundation Choose San Antonio – have spent countless hours on building a process and community mindset needed to change the conversation about San Antonio. A city with a long history of pioneers. A relatively blank palate. A place well-designed for your family, your business, and you. A place to come build something of note, often quietly, and with the hope that by doing so it will foster more to do so after. It’s an effort that today’s pioneers will hopefully one day be able to lament by saying with a true sense of pride, “things aren’t like they used to be.”

Clearly, Amazon is a worthy goal and one that should be pursued with vigor and the utmost of professionalism.  But, despite the very real progress made by the local cadres of its forward facing and globally-minded citizens, the fact remains: Alone San Antonio will not win. Neither will Austin.

So why not try a different, less traveled road and instead work closely as a regional clan to put forth a proposal that drives home the values and strengths of two wonderful South Texas cities separated by only 75 miles and the colloquialism, “lame and weird”?

Even if the outcome is still failure, in the end, deciding to find regionally common ground while at the same time building the community bridges, the required business and government working teams and the administrative and oversight processes puts all on notice of a disruptive powerful new paradigm. Choose SA, this time together.

6 thoughts on “Amazon: Choose San Austin

  1. The problem with Amazon’s choice and Texas is divergence of pot and politics. Forget the airport, the workforce, the cost of living. People in Seattle have to vote on which city they woukd want to possibly move to. Look at choice and healthcare. I think they will pick Boston or Denver.

  2. Why does San Antonio need Amazon is the real questions. Everyone jumps at the chance to get a big name, but what do they really bring. Since Harvey, my opinion has really changed with Amazon. I was so impressed with HEB and Walmart and how much they contributed to the efforts to provide aid, but Amazon and tech hill pooled a couple of dollars together. I am sure Houston provides a healthy chunk of revenue for Amazon but they couldn’t and didn’t do more. For years many communities hated Walmart for how they demolished local businesses, but Walmart over the years has changed a lot of its practices to be a better community neighbors. They still provide physical jobs, ancillary business needs, and real business development in the community including taxes. Jobs may be low paying jobs, but they are still needed. Land and Sales taxes go directly back to the community.
    What would Amazon bring, maybe a few tech jobs. The realization is they would come to San Antonio because of tax abatement while others still have to pay the normal amount and expected low labor rate. Jobs that they would normally pay higher some place else, Amazon would pay less in San Antonio and not help in raising the average rate of pay in San Antonio. Many of the tech giants also rely heavily on H-1B to fill positions so they can pay lower wages and not hire locally. To emphasize their motives, they are asking cities to change laws or existing policy to better suit their needs and give them incentives. In a time where everyone is being asked to pay their fair share, why should rules be changed for Amazon who makes billions of dollars.

    I don’t know if I will be a big Amazon supporter anymore because I do not consider them a good corporate neighbor. In time of need like Harvey, you realize who is apart of your community and who is their to take your money and run.

  3. I’m optimistic about Amazon expansion in Texas based on factors including Whole Foods headquarters in Austin (as mentioned in the op-ed) but also:

    – Blue Origin and massive landholdings in Van Horn (which could put El Paso-Juarez in the running, where mass transit options are rapidly improving); and
    – Strong Texas ties with Mexico City (where Amazon Prime launched this year — the first of likely many efforts in Latin America), including direct flight options that seem to improve every week (and making San Antonio-Austin and Dallas strong contenders; flight options from El Paso-Juarez are fairly weak currently).

    Anywhere that Amazon might choose in Texas or Mexico could be a boost for our region and I’m excited about the prospects!

    If Amazon would decide to further develop their San Marcos property (or even if not), a strong move to help grow San Antonio and the region (and come closer to the urban pedestrian experience and lifestyle that Amazon seeks and has helped to create in Seattle) would be to improve our existing regional public mass transit system — ART — so that it runs more similarly to and connects with the San Marcos-Austin-Georgetown (etc.) CARTS system.

    Improvements to VIA/ART could increase mass transit service to SAT airport, existing Amazon work sites as well as the San Marcos Intermodal station (where daily Amtrak and Greyhound services as well as numerous CARTS buses running nearly hourly during the week to Austin and other points also stop).

    Like others, I was excited by the opportunity to ride VIA from San Antonio to SXSW in Austin as publicized by the Choose SA campaign this March> The Choose SA branded VIA service to SXSW could have been a glimpse at the future of San Antonio regional mass transit, but it just fell apart — simply disappearing from the public website with no notice or explanation at most a day before the first scheduled VIA bus was to run to Austin.

    It’s not clear what wrong with the coordination or implementation, but from outside it was not a good look. I hope San Antonio can collaborate to improve mass transit links to San Marcos and further north, for Amazon workers and others, but so far our actions and services speak louder than our words.

    In 2017 and before and during SA300, our 2018 tricentennial, we can improve San Antonio and our region with better regional mass transit. Public as well as private mass transit options (noting new private offerings in Austin including VonLane and Chariot as well as a new downtown Megabus station) can be improved quickly so that the San Antonio’s mass transit services exceed and possibly can support our marketing and events work.

    See:

    Alamo Regional Transit (ART)
    https://www.aacog.com/67/Alamo-Regional-Transit

    Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS)
    http://www.ridecarts.com/

    Vonlane (no San Antonio-San Marcos-Austin service . . . yet, but San Antonio to Houston)
    https://www.vonlane.com/

    Ford’s Chariot service (vans holding up to 14 passengers) can now be booked from San Antonio to Austin one-way or round trip via the ‘charter’ feature
    https://www.chariot.com/

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