There’s a whisper-quiet rumor making the rounds that Amazon is looking to establish a second headquarters outside of its initial digs in Seattle. It’s even got a name -- HQ2 -- and, in reality, Amazon’s announcement was a thunderous roar.
One of the premier global brands to which anyone or any city would love to hitch its wagon, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sneezes, people want to examine the tissue for opportunity. Thus, economic development officials nationwide are foaming at the mouth while preparing to put their best foot forward, and pundits are speculating as to choices like Denver, Boston, Chicago, Austin and others.
In the offing is some 50,000 new jobs, deep organizational investments in infrastructure and more, thousands of relocating smart minds, high wages, residual economic benefits like new home sales, wage taxes, millions upon millions spent with regional retailers, charitable impacts and hundreds of other companies that will establish a presence to feed off of Amazon. Plus, as CEO Jeff Bezos said, “…billions of dollars in up-front and ongoing investments.” The prospective impact is remarkable, meaningful and has the potential to transform a region.
The big question is: Where? My unabashedly biased answer: St. Louis.
Yes, that St. Louis, in Missouri. The one I once wrote did “not suck” in Forbes. It’s where the Cardinals win a lot of baseball games and the Gateway Arch and Energizer Bunny live, and yes, the region that admittedly grapples with the same set of complex human challenges that nearly every other major metropolitan area in the U.S. is working to address today.
Why should Amazon look to St. Louis? In actuality, there is no one singular selling point, nor should there be if Amazon -- or for that matter, any other company -- is considering it. Rather, the choice revolves around a broad-based criterion, as anyone working in economic development and site selection understands.
Where to being? Well, although it’s not particularly important for all practical purposes, let’s start with legacy, as St. Louis’ run of innovation and corporate success over the past two centuries is nothing short of remarkable.
Anheuser-Busch birthed the global beer industry and Purina the worldwide pet food market; Energizer batteries and the largest car rental company, Enterprise, launched in St. Louis; and say what you want about GMO crops pending your politics, but St. Louis-based Monsanto has ensured for a generation of food production while global farmland dissipates and worldwide population numbers soar.
What have you done for me lately? Jim McKelvey and some anonymous guy from St. Louis named Jack Dorsey founded Square payments systems -- not in the Bay Area -- but in St. Louis; Mercy Hospitals is revolutionizing virtual healthcare here and Washington University Medical’s Human Genome Project has been hailed as groundbreaking.
What’s ironically lost relative to what Amazon is, and is not, revolves around perhaps the most boring moniker in business: Logistics.
But what about tech? Amazon, of course, is a tech giant, and one would imagine that being a “tech town” is important. St. Louis was once corporate America’s manufacturing backyard, but through strategic planning initiatives first launched at the start of the new millennium, the region has evolved into a vibrant hotbed of technology, as well as a cradle of entrepreneurship over the past decade. But don’t take my word for it -- Forbes’ Christopher Steiner cited St. Louis as “The Right Way To Build a Tech City,” the city was ranked as the top startup city by Popular Mechanics in 2015, the fastest growing startup city by Business Insider and the “new startup frontier” by FiveThirtyEight in 2016.
What’s ironically lost relative to what Amazon is, and is not, revolves around perhaps the most boring moniker in business: Logistics. That’s right -- at its core, Amazon is simply a logistics company. And guess what? St. Louis is a logistics town -- total ballers in moving goods. The region is centered in the middle of the U.S., at the cross-section of international air, rail, interstate and major rivers; within 500 miles of one-third of the U.S. population and 1,500 miles of 90 percent of the people in North America.
And beyond the stereotypical perspective of transportation, let’s not forget the softer side of the modern worker’s everyday life -- public transit -- which is a key component for Amazon employees. Millennial workers today are less interested in driving to and from work and more interested in hopping a train to work as well as play. Thus, light rail is no frivolous criterion, and it just so happens that St. Louis has one, offering convenient service throughout the city, into nearby suburbs and to the airport.
What about human assets, or more plainly, a strong native workforce?
From a potential standpoint, the region has more than 30 four-year colleges and universities in the region, enrolling approximately 120,000 students, with options ranging from community and technical colleges to the esteemed Saint Louis University and the nationally recognized and prestigious Washington University in St. Louis. Plus, St. Louis has a strong pipeline of talent to one of the finest software engineering programs in the U.S. -- the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.
From a more present-day perspective, the region is a hotbed of smart minds. For example, it has more plant science PhDs than anywhere else in the world thanks to the presence of Monsanto, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Washington University, among others. The region also boasts one of the largest STEM workforces in the U.S. as more than 80,000 are employed in these highly specialized occupations. Additionally, metro-St. Louis has cultivated a bioscience machine as noted by The Initiative for Competitive Inner Cities’ report, “Building Strong Clusters for Strong Urban Economies.” The organization cited St. Louis’ BioSTL bioscience economic development coalition -- established in 2001 to build on plant and life science strengths -- as a model for cities endeavoring to create economic growth through regional strengths.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon decision makers, even Santa Claus -- are you paying attention? It’s all right there in front you.
How about life beyond the day-to-day grind of work? Good news -- the region’s cultural assets are rich and diverse. St. Louis boasts one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. (Forest Park), amazing theaters like the historic Fabulous Fox and Muny theaters, The National Blues Museum, a strong live music scene highlighted by the annual LouFest music festival, the insane City Museum, the Magic House children’s museum, a vast collection of historic architecture, phenomenal art and history museums and, of course, the obligatory reference to the Gateway Arch.
Plus, St. Louis couldn’t exist without baseball and beer, and has not only been widely hailed as America’s best baseball town, but also is an unquestioned beer town -- built on the backs of Anheuser-Busch -- and now boasts one of the most respected craft beer communities in the U.S. led by Schlafly and Urban Chestnut, among other stellar microbrews.
And while you never lead a sale with price, let’s finish with it. In reality, you can’t sing karaoke in a public park in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, DC or Miami without it somehow costing you $145 per cubic note.
Good thing St. Louis’ median home value, at $164,200, is well below the U.S. median of $194,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey data. But what does that really get you? Certainly more than your $2,000-per-month 400-square-foot efficiency in Manhattan.
The Council for Community and Economic Research (ACCRA) Cost of Living Index that measures the relative cost of U.S. metropolitan areas examines a new 2,400 square foot, four-bedroom, two-bath home with an attached two-car garage suitable for a management household. This index correlated with an average St. Louis-area home price of $214,260 for the year 2016 versus the U.S. metro average of $326,999 for the same period.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon decision makers, even Santa Claus -- are you paying attention? It’s all right there in front you. The smart choice. A community that has a certain hustle in its step that has the red carpet laid out for you -- that’s St. Louis. Whether it’s smart minds, a welcoming business environment, cultural assets, a legacy of innovation, tech talent or even cost of living -- this region has all the ingredients Amazon needs to make HQ2 a success. Let’s get cooking, together.