October 16, 2017

Amazon should come to Worcester

Courtesy/Setti Warren
Newton Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren.

It is important to ask the right questions when it comes to Amazon and the opportunity to become the host for its proposed second headquarters, dubbed HQ2.

Do we want Amazon? Where could we fit that much space and that many new people? How much should we be willing to give them to lure them here? These are important questions – but they are not the right questions to ask out of the gates.

Let's start by clearly defining the opportunity that Amazon presents by identifying three categories that can guide Massachusetts' strategy in pursuing Amazon's HQ2.

The first is pretty straight forward – the huge capital investments, thousands of good jobs and the prestige of welcoming a growing new economy leader like Amazon to our state – but we are looking at the total opportunity too narrowly if we are only just about those components.

Massachusetts is reportedly already on Amazon's short list for HQ2.

Earlier this year, the company already announced it was bringing 900 new jobs to a location in Boston's Seaport district - and they did that with zero incentives. It is the depth of our talented workforce, our world-class academic institutions, our thriving innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, and a lifestyle steeped in history, culture, recreation and entertainment options Amazon wants.

If we do this right, we can leverage the significant public investments needed to lure Amazon to grow the geographic footprint of our innovation economy outside of Route 128.

Finally, the third element of this opportunity is the most important: a large public investment to lure Amazon's HQ2 and so many other growing companies to our state would also benefit people who already live here.

While it's exciting to potentially add 50,000 jobs from a giant like Amazon, if we make bold public investments enabling a new wave of startup formation all across the state, we could inspire and enable all the future Jeff Bezos' of tomorrow who have great ideas to build iconic companies in Worcester, Springfield or East Boston. Not to mention all the people stuck in unending traffic nightmares and public transit failures could benefit from the same big public investment if we do it right.

For these reasons, I have proposed Amazon locate its second headquarters in Worcester, in the heart of the Commonwealth, and Massachusetts use the large public investment needed to lure the company here to fund the construction of a bullet train connecting Western Massachusetts with Boston.

While there are many things to celebrate about Massachusetts' economy, the truth is many people and communities here are falling behind. We may lead the nation in education and innovation, but we also lead the nation in economic inequality.

A significant part of the economic inequality in Massachusetts is the fact regions outside of the Boston area are often cut off from the humming economy by our inadequate transportation system. Even in areas where the economy is strong, the perpetual traffic nightmares, public-transit failures and limited and expensive housing stock threaten to undermine our successes.

Worcester has nine fantastic colleges with more than 36,000 students, a growing innovation economy and well-educated workforce. With high-speed rail connecting it to Western Massachusetts and Boston, Worcester would satisfy Amazon's requirements. And we can build on current investments in commuter rail service already providing a link between Central Massachusetts and the Boston area.

A high-speed rail line running through Worcester would allow Amazon to take full advantage of all of the strengths Massachusetts has to offer. An engineering graduate from Harvard or MIT could travel from an apartment in Kendall Square to Worcester in no time. Talented kids growing up in Springfield or the Berkshires wouldn't need to leave their parents and grandparents for the chance to work at a big, new-economy company in Boston.

By the early 20th century, thanks to public investments in the Blackstone Canal and Boston-Worcester railroad, Worcester emerged as a dynamic, economic powerhouse driven by manufacturing. Welcoming Amazon to Worcester in in the 21st century, in conjunction with a public investment in high-speed rail, would once again give all regions of Massachusetts a fighting chance to become stronger and more vibrant economies for generations to come.

Setti Warren is the Democratic mayor of Newton. He is a candidate for governor in 2018.

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