Chicago is Jeff Bezos’ kind of town, though he may not yet know it.
Our city was founded on a swamp by entrepreneurs every bit as audacious as Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com. It was built by people of every color and background who worked hard, smart and long. It looks back for inspiration, in the same way Bezos looks back to Thomas Edison and Walt Disney, but leans into the future.
If Bezos chooses Chicago for Amazon’s second headquarters, known as “HQ2,” the company will need to do no more than live by its own corporate values — and both it and the city will thrive. Amazon represents the next chapter in the kind of quintessentially American disruptive innovation that has been Chicago’s whole story. Amazon, a company taking on the world, would find an ideal home in Chicago, a commercial hub for the world.
Chicago is an amazing city. We probably don’t say that so baldly often enough, the first job of an editorial page being to prod, not to praise.
But everything on Bezos’ wish list for Amazon’s second headquarters, with its promise of up to 50,000 new jobs, can be found right here.
Amazon requires a quick commute to an international airport. Obviously, Chicago’s got that.
Amazon requires close proximity to major highways, and Chicago’s got that.
Amazon requires 8 million square feet of space, in some combination of open land and existing buildings, and Chicago’s got that — along with the construction firepower to renovate or build whatever Bezos might envision.
In a Sun-Times story on Wednesday, reporter Fran Spielman called attention to six potentially excellent sites, including the Old Main Post Office, which could be emblazoned with Amazon’s corporate logos over the traffic-heavy Eisenhower Expressway and Congress Parkway.
Amazon requires a “highly educated labor pool” and a “strong university system,” and Chicago is powerfully strong on both counts. The city’s skilled workforce and superb universities were big draws for other major companies that have relocated here in recent years, including Boeing and ConAgra. Chicago employs more than 143,000 people in its growing tech sector, including 44,000 in software engineering.
Amazon also is looking for a “stable and business-friendly climate.”
Yeah, that one gave us pause.
Illinois just slogged through two years of self-defeating stalemate in state government. But of this we have little doubt: Local politics would end at Amazon’s door. Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have vowed as much, and we have every reason to believe them.
Then, of course, there is the crucial question of the quality of life, which frankly is Chicago’s ace card. If it is Amazon’s aim, as the company’s request for proposals says, to set up shop in “a community where our employees will enjoy living,” Chicago is hard to beat. We are a proudly multicultural city of great diversity and tolerance, and rich in culture both high and low, from festivals to theater to professional sports to museums to the symphony to art galleries to bike rides along the city’s stunning lakefront.
Quality of life? We hardly know where to start. We’ll have to write more on that later.
Bezos is a spiritual descendant of the bold Chicago entrepreneurs who reinvented the retail sales business. He has said, more than once, that he envisions Amazon as “the next Sears.”
In North America, the mail order business essentially started in Chicago, led by Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears, two of the most creative tech innovators of their time. Just as Amazon today sells directly to customers over the internet, bypassing brick-and-mortar stores, the mail-order kings of Chicago sold directly to customers through the mail, offering thousands of goods listed in free catalogues. You could buy a hairbrush. You could buy a house.
But Bezos reminds us, as well, of other bold Chicagoans.
There was Daniel Burnham, for one, who brought to life Chicago’s celebrated 1893 World’s Fair and famously said, “Make no little plans.”
And there was Marshall Field, the genius of the department store, who pioneered the first rule of retailing — thoroughly embraced by Bezos — that the customer always comes first.
“Give the lady what she wants,” said Field.
If Amazon comes to Chicago, it will in a way be coming home.
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