EDITORIAL: When a deal like Amazon comes along, a great city is ready
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When somebody dangles the possibility of 50,000 new jobs for your city, it concentrates the mind.
You see your town with greater clarity. You appreciate more fully its strengths, the many reasons any smart company would want to set up shop. You see its weaknesses in a stronger light, too, harder to deny.
From the moment Seattle-based Amazon announced it would build a second North American headquarters, we have been struck by what a perfect fit Chicago would be. We try to avoid boosterism, but facts are facts. Chicago can deliver superbly what Amazon wants most — a big, diverse and highly educated workforce, and a convenient flight to any place in the world.
Our town also offers a quality of life that’s tough to beat, even if the Cubs never win another game.
Contemplating the prospect of 50,000 new jobs, you more fully appreciate something else. If Chicago wins HQ2, as Amazon refers to its second headquarters, it won’t be because our city put together the best bid, beating out other cities. It will be because Chicago has been bidding all along. Chicago has been reinventing itself, deliberately securing its future, all this century. Chicago is ready.
Chicago has energy. Better yet, our city has about it an enviable sense of urgency. Not much that’s good in Chicago, a city founded on a swamp, has ever happened by accident, save for the natural wonder of the lakefront. Most of our city’s superior amenities, such as its universities, theaters and airports, came about by bold intent, willed into being by an urgency that continues.
What does that mean for Amazon? It means easy pickin’.
The Chicago area is home to some 35,000 software developers, 67,000 engineers, 42,000 accountants, 11,500 computer programmers, and 38,000 lawyers and paralegals. Chicago’s universities produce the second most MBAs in the country, the third most engineers and the third most computer scientists.
In Seattle, though it is a terrific city, Amazon has a problem. More than 5,000 jobs, many in the field of software engineering, go unfilled because the city’s workforce is too small. Amazon in Seattle is like a whale in a lake.
In Chicago, Amazon would be a giant of an employer — the single biggest in Illinois — but it would never tap out the employable talent. Amazon could hire the best of the best from a pool sure to never run dry.
In the same way, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, already among the world’s biggest and undergoing a massive expansion, has what it takes to meet Amazon’s travel needs without more than a hiccup. A flight from Seattle to Stockholm might require a change of planes in New York. A flight from Chicago to Stockholm is a flight from Chicago to Stockholm.
Amazon wants to go everywhere, and O’Hare can take it anywhere.
OAG, a respected air-travel analytics company based in London, recently ranked O’Hare as the “best-connected” airport in the United States, meaning O’Hare makes more flights to more domestic and international destinations than any other airport in the United States. O’Hare flies directly to 208 cities, including 55 cities in other countries. And, on top of this, Chicago has a second thriving and well-connected airport, Midway.
For all of that, O’Hare has to get bigger. Because of a shortage of gates for planes, O’Hare lags behind other airports in the growth of its international business. But a solution to that is in the works — and has been since well before Amazon dangled HQ2.
A planned redesign and expansion of O’Hare is expected to add the flight capacity of an entire additional airport — essentially another Midway. A huge international terminal with customs facilities is to be built. Terminal 1, home to O’Hare’s largest carrier, United Airlines, is to be dramatically expanded.
When a potential deal as big as Amazon comes along, the message to any smart city is that you had better be on your game. Not just now but always. You had better be pushing ahead — yesterday, today and tomorrow — with a sense of urgency. You had better be focused on the future.
Because if you have not been doing that all along, as we believe Chicago has, you’ll never land a deal like Amazon. Or the next big thing.
For Chicago, that means pushing forward even more, come what may of Amazon. We’d like to see that express CTA train from the Loop to O’Hare get built. We’d like to see an expansion of the Riverwalk all the way to Chinatown. We’d like to see more apprenticeship collaborations between industry and community colleges.
We’d like to see more dedicated bike paths. We’d like to see a cure for congestion on our expressways. We’d like to see a more determined commitment by City Hall, corporate leaders and the city’s philanthropic community to incubate new businesses in our city’s most deprived neighborhoods.
Above all, we’d like to see further improvements to our public schools, which have made significant academic gains in the last few years, and we must have a stronger response to the problem of violent crime.
This might be where Chicago should ask not what the city can do for Amazon, but what Amazon can do for the city. Amazon prides itself on its progressive corporate values, on its commitment to the communities in which it does business. Chicago would welcome that here.
When a big company holds out the possibility of 50,000 new jobs, it concentrates the mind. You see more clearly what kind of town you are, and what kind of town you want to be.
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