The present we didn’t get and the gifts it provides

By John Tayer

Since we’re in the midst of the holiday season, and we’re all thinking about those gifts we’re expecting to receive, I thought it would be appropriate to spend a little time reflecting on one present we didn’t receive, the Amazon HQ2.

I know there was a great deal of apprehension across the Front Range regarding the potential impact of 50,000 new jobs suddenly landing on our doorstep. We already have a workforce, housing and transportation crunch and the new Amazon HQ2, especially the originally envisioned single site, would certainly have exacerbated the situation. Yet, being selected for HQ2 also would have secured Colorado’s position as a technology center, with long-term residual benefits for Boulder’s innovation economy.

All the consternation and uncertainty aside, it certainly was interesting to have a front-row seat in the Denver region’s pitch as one of Amazon’s potential sites for its new headquarters. Much has been written about the final choices — not all of it positive, even for the “winners.” But I’ve been particularly interested in lessons learned from that process, and I think there are some themes that could prove useful to Boulder.

Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution observed Amazon’s focus on access to talent. In particular, he wrote that the winners — New York and D.C. — had greater access to technology talent than any other competing site. He noted, as an example, that those locales had a significant number of workers in computer and mathematical occupations. As further demonstration of their focus on talent, Berube pointed out that Amazon’s first FAQ answer justifying a two-city choice was, “We can recruit more top talent by being in two locations.”

The focus on talent was no surprise. In its RFP, Amazon cited a preference for “urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent.” The Boulder Chamber has long emphasized the importance of developing and maintaining a skilled workforce for preserving our future economic vitality. As if to prove that point, Berube concluded, “Cities that didn’t win should take up the challenge of growing a digitally-oriented workforce at scale through significant investments in training, and complementary strategies to grow technically advanced jobs from within their current employer base. These and other cities should examine and re-tool their economic development incentives to prioritize investments in workforce preparedness.” These are just the kinds of workforce initiatives we’re pursuing through our Boulder Together program — — in fields ranging from health care to manufacturing and, yes, computer technology. 

Laura Bliss of CityLab focused on transportation as a key to Amazon’s decision. In its RFP, Amazon asked for “…highway, airport, and related travel and logistics information for all proposed sites.” It also wanted to see transit and other options for commuting employees, including bike lanes and pedestrian access. Bliss opined that New York and D.C. “…are two of the best-connected transportation cities in the United States.” She did note that they each still need to make improvements in their transportation systems, but she expressed hope that Amazon’s presence would give them the impetus to pursue such investments.

We don’t have to be as large as New York or wait until we seek a new Amazon HQ (if that would ever even be of interest) to recognize the need to better move workers and residents around our community. That is why the Boulder Chamber has formed a partnership with our regional chamber colleagues through the Northwest Chamber Alliance to drive us toward expedited improvements on critical commute corridors. We’re also working with a diverse coalition of local government officials and transportation agencies, transportation support organizations like Boulder Transportation Connections, Commuting Solutions, and Community Cycles, private ride-share providers like Chariot and Via, and research and academic institutions like the University of Colorado and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to design mobility solutions that will provide immediate relief to commuting employees and area residents.

A plethora of other learning opportunities abound for the communities that did not attract Amazon’s big pre-holiday present. Writing in The Atlantic, Aaron Renn, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, believes, “There’s a lot of potential value in losing, for those cities that are willing to make the most of it.” The bottom line is that the factors considered important by Amazon are things we know are important. Of course, we don’t need Amazon to recognize those things. Let this holiday season gift be the foresight and motivation to tackle the deficiencies that the Amazon competition exposed.

John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at (303) 442-1044, ext 110 or

To view this article on BizWest, click here.

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