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Cities that didn’t win HQ2 shouldn’t be counted out

Scott Andes
Contributor

Scott Andes is the program director for the National League of Cities City Innovation Ecosystem program.

The more than year-long dance between cities and Amazon for its second headquarters is finally over, with New York City and Washington, DC, capturing the big prize. With one of the largest economic development windfalls in a generation on the line, 238 cities used every tactic in the book to court the company – including offering to rename a city “Amazon” and appointing Jeff Bezos “mayor for life.”

Now that the process, and hysteria, are over, and cities have stopped asking “how can we get Amazon,” we’d like to ask a different question: How can cities build stronger start-up ecosystems for the Amazon yet to be built?

In September 2017, Amazon announced that it would seek a second headquarters. But rather than being the typical site selection process, this would become a highly publicized Hunger Games-esque scenario.

An RFP was proffered on what the company sought, and it included everything any good urbanist would want, with walkability, transportation and cultural characteristics on the docket. But of course, incentives were also high on the list.

Amazon could have been a transformational catalyst for a plethora of cities throughout the US, but instead, it chose two superstar cities: the number one and five metro areas by GDP which, combined, amounts to a nearly $2 trillion GDP. These two metro areas also have some of the highest real estate prices in the country, a swath of high paying jobs and of course power — financial and political — close at hand.

Perhaps the take-away for cities isn’t that we should all be so focused on hooking that big fish from afar, but instead that we should be growing it in our own waters. Amazon itself is a great example of this. It’s worth remembering that over the course of a quarter century, Amazon went from a garage in Seattle’s suburbs to consuming 16 percent — or 81 million square feet — of the city’s downtown. On the other end of the spectrum, the largest global technology company in 1994 (the year of Amazon’s birth) was Netscape, which no longer exists.

The upshot is that cities that rely only on attracting massive technology companies are usually too late.

At the National League of Cities, we think there are ways to expand the pie that don’t reinforce existing spatial inequalities. This is exactly the idea behind the launch of our city innovation ecosystems commitments process. With support from the Schmidt Futures Foundation, fifty cities, ranging from rural townships, college towns, and major metros, have joined with over 200 local partners and leveraged over $100 million in regional and national resources to support young businesses, leverage technology and expand STEM education and workforce training for all.

The investments these cities are making today may in fact be the precursor to some of the largest tech companies of the future.

With that idea in mind, here are eight cities that didn’t win HQ2 bids but are ensuring their cities will be prepared to create the next tranche of high-growth startups. 

Austin

Austin just built a medical school adjacent to a tier one research university, the University of Texas. It’s the first such project to be completed in America in over fifty years. To ensure the addition translates into economic opportunity for the city, Austin’s public, private and civic leaders have come together to create Capital City Innovation to launch the city’s first Innovation District at the new medical school. This will help expand the city’s already world class startup ecosystem into the health and wellness markets.

Baltimore

Baltimore is home to over $2 billion in academic research, ranking it third in the nation behind Boston and Philadelphia. In order to ensure everyone participates in the expanding research-based startup ecosystem, the city is transforming community recreation centers into maker and technology training centers to connect disadvantaged youth and families to new skills and careers in technology. The Rec-to-Tech Initiative will begin with community design sessions at four recreation centers, in partnership with the Digital Harbor Foundation, to create a feasibility study and implementation plan to review for further expansion.

Buffalo

The 120-acre Buffalo Niagara Medical Center (BNMC) is home to eight academic institutions and hospitals and over 150 private technology and health companies. To ensure Buffalo’s startups reflect the diversity of its population, the Innovation Center at BNMC has just announced a new program to provide free space and mentorship to 10 high potential minority- and/or women-owned start-ups.

Denver

Like Seattle, real estate development in Denver is growing at a feverish rate. And while the growth is bringing new opportunity, the city is expanding faster than the workforce can keep pace. To ensure a sustainable growth trajectory, Denver has recruited the Next Generation City Builders to train students and retrain existing workers to fill high-demand jobs in architecture, design, construction and transportation. 

Providence

With a population of 180,000, Providence is home to eight higher education institutions – including Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design – making it a hub for both technical and creative talent. The city of Providence, in collaboration with its higher education institutions and two hospital systems, has created a new public-private-university partnership, the Urban Innovation Partnership, to collectively contribute and support the city’s growing innovation economy. 

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh may have once been known as a steel town, but today it is a global mecca for robotics research, with over 4.5 times the national average robotics R&D within its borders. Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh is creating a more inclusive innovation economy through a Rec-to-Tech program that will re-invest in the city’s 10 recreational centers, connecting students and parents to the skills needed to participate in the economy of the future. 

Tampa

Tampa is already home to 30,000 technical and scientific consultant and computer design jobs — and that number is growing. To meet future demand and ensure the region has an inclusive growth strategy, the city of Tampa, with 13 university, civic and private sector partners, has announced “Future Innovators of Tampa Bay.” The new six-year initiative seeks to provide the opportunity for every one of the Tampa Bay Region’s 600,000 K-12 students to be trained in digital creativity, invention and entrepreneurship.

These eight cities help demonstrate the innovation we are seeing on the ground now, all throughout the country. The seeds of success have been planted with people, partnerships and public leadership at the fore. Perhaps they didn’t land HQ2 this time, but when we fast forward to 2038 — and the search for Argo AISparkCognition or Welltok’s new headquarters is well underway — the groundwork will have been laid for cities with strong ecosystems already in place to compete on an even playing field.

Bernie Sanders’ problem with Amazon

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is seeking additional information about the working conditions in Amazon warehouses in advance of legislation he’s preparing to introduce on September 5. 

Income inequality was, after all, the centerpiece of Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. It was a populist message that resonated strongly with voters, giving the dark horse candidate a boost among concerned progressives and independents during a tooth and nail primary battle.

But while the message, perhaps, wasn’t enough to put him over the top, it’s a mission that’s remained central to Sanders’ work on Capitol Hill, finding him taking aim at some of the world’s largest corporations. In recent months, Amazon has been in the senator’s sights.

Earlier today, Sanders tweeted out a link asking employees of the online retail giant to share their experiences working for the company. The form allows current and former Amazon employees to share their stories either on the record or anonymously. It asks whether workers “struggle[d] with the demanding working conditions,” and whether they required public assistance.

Are you a current or former Amazon employee? Please share your experiences with Sen. Bernie Sanders . https://t.co/fQzm3SuyXA

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 28, 2018

In a phone call today, Sanders told TechCrunch that his office already knows enough about the working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but is seeking additional information as it prepares to introduce legislation on September 5.

“We know that the median salary for Amazon employees is about $28,000,” the Senator told TechCrunch. “And about half the workers who work for Amazon make less than $28,000 a year.”

It’s easy to see why the company has become a prime target for Sanders. A recent SEC filing put the median salary at $28,446 — less than owner Jeff Bezos makes every 10 seconds.

“We have every reason to believe that many, many thousands of Amazon workers in their warehouses throughout the country are earning very low wages,” Sanders explained. “It’s hard to get this information. Amazon has not been very forthcoming. From what information we’ve gathered, one out of three Amazon workers in Arizona, as we understand it, are on public assistance. They are receiving either Medicaid, food stamps or public housing.”

The Senator acknowledges that nothing about what Amazon is doing, on the face of it, is breaking any laws. But the discrepancy between its highest and lowest wage earners is enough for him to call into question why government subsidies are required to buoy those on the bottom rung. This is precisely what the proposed legislation aims to address.

Put simply, Sanders says we have every reason to believe that the richest man in the world can afford to pay employees more.

“The taxpayers in this country should not be subsidizing a guy who’s worth $150 billion, whose wealth is increasing by $260 million every single day,” said Sanders. “That is insane. He has enough money to pay his workers a living wage. He does not need corporate welfare. And our goal is to see that Bezos pays his workers a living wage.”

While Amazon is notoriously tight-lipped about matters these matters, the company has been on the defensive since the senator made it a kind of pet project. Amazon won’t comment directly on the forthcoming legislation until it’s made official, but the company did provide TechCrunch with comment regarding the blowback.

“We encourage anyone to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime. That’s in addition to our full benefits package that includes health, vision and dental insurance, retirement, generous parental leave, and skills training for in-demand jobs through our Career Choice program, which has over 16,000 participants.”

Amazon further suggests that those interested in learning more about warehouse conditions book a tour of one of its fulfillment centers to “see for themselves.” 

A representative from Sanders’ office tells TechCrunch that Amazon invited the senator on a tour of a fulfillment center, and he plans to take the company up on the offer.

SAN FERNANDO DE HENARES, SPAIN – 2018/07/16: General view of the Amazon warehouse in San Fernando de Henares.

Of course, the concerns over Amazon’s treatment of workers aren’t new. Mother Jones ran an exposé of what it was like working as an Amazon warehouse slave in 2012. In 2013, Gawker published a series of emails from employees discussing life in fulfillment centers citing things like “unrealistic goals,” “very short breaks” and “below zero temps” in warehouses. A protestor cited by The Guardian in 2014 said it was better to be homeless than work for the retailer. And, most recently, Business Insider documented the “horror stories” faced by the Amazon warehouse workers, including nonstop surveillance and so little ability to take breaks, they couldn’t even use the facilities, when needed.  

Amazon has since been on something of a charm offensive in response to those PR headaches.

Last week, there was the odd phenomenon of an army of Twitter accounts claiming to be warehouse workers who were serving up similar talking points.

“Hello!” one wrote, cheerfully. “I work in an Amazon FC in WA and our wages and benefits are very good. Amazon pays FC employess [sic] ~30% more than traditional retail stores and offers full medical benefits from day 1. Working conditions are very good- clean/well lit- Safety is a top priority at my facility!”

That Amazon positions its own offerings as “highly competitive” can, perhaps, be seen as something of an indictment of larger issues with warehouse fulfillment. While the company is an easy target, it’s certainly not alone. And Sanders notes that his office is casting the net wider than just Amazon. Disney and Walmart have also been targeted by the senator.

In June, Sanders told a crowd at an Anaheim church, “I want to hear the moral defense of a company that makes $9 billion in profits, $400 million for their CEOs and have a 30-year worker going hungry. Tell me how that is right.” 

A month later, he took to Twitter to call out CEO Bob Iger directly, writing, “Does Disney CEO Bob Iger have a good explanation for why he is being compensated more than $400 million while workers at Disneyland are homeless and relying on food stamps to feed their families?”

Does Disney CEO Bob Iger have a good explanation for why he is being compensated more than $400 million while workers at Disneyland are homeless and relying on food stamps to feed their families?

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) July 13, 2018

Earlier this week, however, Disney reached an agreement with the Walt Disney World union to pay workers a $15 minimum wage.

“We’ve seen real progress at the Disney corporation,” Sanders told TechCrunch, “and I believe that Jeff Bezos can play a profound role in American society today if he were to say, ‘yes, I’m the richest guy in the world. I will pay my workers a living wage at least $15 and make sure all of my workers have the security and dignity they need. I will improve conditions.’”

Amazon and Walmart, meanwhile, remain the two key targets for the impending legislation. With Democrats in the minority in the U.S. Senate, it seems unlikely that a hearing will be called where Bezos would be asked to testify à la Mark Zuckerberg, but the senator plans to go ahead with the legislation next week, regardless.  

“That legislation is pretty simple,” explained Sanders. “It says: if you are a large company of 500 or more employees and you’re paying your workers wages that are so low that they have to go on food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, etc., then you have to pay taxes commensurate to how much the government is now spending for that assistance. It’s going to be the employer – the Jeff Bezos, the Walton family – who will pick up the tab for these public assistance programs, rather than the middle class of the country.”

Jeff Bezos wants Blue Origin to be the Amazon of the Moon

Fourth successful launch of the same New Shepard vehicle during test flights / Image courtesy of Blue Origin Not one to be left out, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is also making plans to go to the Moon, just like fellow space magnate Elon Musk. Bezos’ plan, uncovered by The Washington Post via a draft proposal presented to NASA and Trump’s administration, outlines Blue Origin’s plan to create a cargo spacecraft destined for the Moon that would help it ferry supplies… Read More

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