Frank Fujimoto / Creative Commons
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.