Imagine if millennials preferred suburbs over cities. If so, Amazon could save billions by not negotiating with New York. Amazon could take freebies from Bellevue. Suburbanites wouldn’t protest corporate parks. Small town mayors wouldn’t propose head taxes. There would be ample parking and excellent public schools to attract the best middle-aged software developers.
But this isn’t how it works. Amazon wants millennials so badly it will face the New York firing squad. And it puts up with the mercurial Seattle city council for the same reason. And I would argue it has been well rewarded. Seattle has been one of the country’s most successful cities in attracting millennials. Amazon grew from 4,000 Seattle employees to 45,000 employees in nine years. It has the largest urban campus in America. And every employee that Amazon hired was matched by a new Seattle employee at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, or Apple. As of this afternoon Amazon still had more than 9,000 open positions.
Tech companies don’t relocate to downtown Seattle for cheap land or reasonable rents, they come for the vibrant city environment. Seattle’s street-level culture is incredible, with cafes, five-star hotels, and an unmatched foodie scene. The city has nearly every major cultural marker: NFL, MLB, NHL, SAM, the Rep, and the Opera. Seattle has a massive tier-one university that does more than $1.3 billion in federally funded research per year on game changing technologies. Oh, by the way, the city sits between the ocean and a range of volcanoes containing two of the state’s three National Parks.
So why does Amazon put up with so much political derision? It’s because cities attract millennials and millennials are the lifeblood of software development. Millennials are generally the programmers who can code in Python, Swift or other hot new language. Middle-aged developers adept at C++ or C# are ubiquitous and the languages are not in demand the same way that novel languages are. Millennials are fresh from college where they spent four years immersed in learning one or two relevant programming languages.
So this is where I give credit where credit is due. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jenny Durkan aren’t fighting about tax incentives, they are fighting about the true value of their cities. Millennials come to Seattle because it’s beautiful, hip, artistic, tolerant, prosperous, and, in some instances, world class. This didn’t happen by accident. Seattle has been built with intention, capital, and political effort for more than 170 years. The Duwamish tribe did far more in the 4,000 years before that. Amazon, Facebook, or any other company cannot just come along and appropriate the city’s worth without recognizing the transfer of that value.
Seattle is as good as it’s going to get for Amazon.
“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us.” – Chief Sealth.