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7 things we learned from the Amazon bid

November 23, 2018

Catherine Smith’s phone rang on the morning of Jan. 18, just as she was starting to see news of the finalist cities for the Amazon second headquarters pop up on her screen. It was Amazon calling.

The Connecticut economic and community development commissioner recounted the conversation this past week, now that Amazon has chosen New York and Washington, D.C. (actually Crystal City, Va., just over the Potomac River) to share the coveted HQ2.

“Hey, we’re sorry you guys didn’t make the cut,” Smith recounted.

The caller, a woman named Holly Sullivan, was encouraging. The two cities in Connecticut’s official bids for the 50,000 jobs and up to 8 million square feet of office space, Stamford and Hartford, weren’t big enough — although technically, they fit the requirement of anchoring metro areas of at least 1 million people.

No midsize city among the final 20 ever had a shot — let alone any of the smaller cities on the reported list of some 238 that applied. Amazon blew a chance to make a big difference and shape economic development.

But Smith and others involved in the bidding came away with good feelings as Amazon and others offered upbeat reviews. Danbury, Waterbury and a joint effort from Bridgeport and New Haven sought the nod from Amazon directly in addition to the official Stamford and Hartford bids from the state.

Here are seven things we learned about our ability to compete for big companies going forward.

CT cities can work together but we’re still fractured

“It was very helpful to engage with the economic development people throughout the state,” Smith said. The state is now adapting its excellent Amazon bid website, www.CTisPrime.com (get it?) for broader efforts to attract companies. And in Smith’s view, the state’s successful luring of Indian IT firm Infosys to Hartford, which will bring 1,000 jobs, reflected the new spirit of cooperation.

As for Bridgeport and New Haven, they built on unity we’ve seen with the MGM Bridgeport casino bid over the last 14 months. “It broke some new ground in terms of regional cooperation,” Laurence Grotheer, spokesman for New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, said. Yes, we had five bids but the Boston area alone had a dozen towns bidding.

The upshot: Connecticut is still a bunch of small fiefdoms but Amazon showed we can pull together, to a point.

Lack of a downstate airport hurts but doesn’t kill

For northern Connecticut, Bradley International Airport, winner of some great recognition lately, could have served Amazon well enough. “They wanted very specific connections,” said Randal Davis, special assistant to Transportation Commissioner James Redeker. Airlines would add flights at Bradley and Stamford can rely on LaGuardia and JFK in New York.

But the absence of a significant airport along the shoreline definitely hurts Bridgeport and New Haven. “In preparing the bid, officials were forced to talk more about Bradley and the New York airports and even Green,” said Grotheer, in New Haven, referring to T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island, “because Tweed has fallen behind.”

Harp fought in the legislature for an expansion of tiny Tweed-New Haven Airport, but that’s controversial. Likewise, Igor Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, owned by the city of Bridgeport, is many years away from seeing scheduled commercial service. But one way or another, more has to happen at one or both of these airports if big companies are to eye the central shoreline cities.

Growth is headed toward us

To most of us, Amazon’s selection of Long Island City, Queens — directly across the East River from Midtown Manhattan — is no different than any other location in the city. To Joseph McGee, vice president of policy at The Business Council of Fairfield County, it’s a step toward Connecticut.

That’s because the Amazon site is part of a wave of development east and north of Manhattan. “I don’t think people in Connecticut realize that development in Manhattan … is spilling out east of the Hudson,” said McGee, who was state economic development commissioner under former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. when corporate incentives exploded in the early ’90s. “We’re linked…That’s the really big story.”

Separately, it remains to be seen how many of the new Amazon employees decide to live in Connecticut.

We need to work with New York on commuter trains

Speaking of links, we’re seeing commuter rail progress but not enough — as the Amazon bids revealed.

In New York, a planned commuter rail will connect New Rochelle and points south along a newly expanded “Hell Gate” spur to Penn Station on the East Side. This $1 billion project would connect with new MTA stations heading to Hunt’s Point in the South Bronx and, eventually, the Amazon site. All of this is good for Connecticut; as McGee points out, 11,000 people commute from New York to work in Connecticut. “We really feel there needs to be a new regional compact between New York and Connecticut regarding transportation,” McGee said. “The New Haven line is a two-state line and we need to be absolutely at the table.”

There are debates about the best ways to make that happen and, more important, debates about how to spend scarce dollars on upgrades to Metro-North. A new, $100 million parking garage in Stamford, proposed by the DOT, or spend that money on track improvements to speed trains? Companies like Amazon want to see it all fit together.

“Infused in what they were looking for, multi-modal transportation was a key factor,” said Randal Davis, at DOT.

Quality of life helps balance the fiscal hangover

Yeah, we all know Connecticut is tens of billions in the hole for pensions and health benefits. That can scare off companies. But many folks see the state’s quality of life balancing costs better in the coming years. That includes access to everything within a day’s round-trip drive, lots of open space, less congestion and relatively low housing costs, except in lower Fairfield County; and the state’s vaunted health, education and cultural advantages.

“If you can’t find something to do in Connecticut, you’re literally not trying,” Davis said. He called Hartford “nascent” and added, “we do have a good arts scene and that’s part of what they were talking about.”

The goal is for us to stop beating ourselves up. When an outside group evaluated all 200-plus bids and gave a presentation, Connecticut had two of 12 slides, Smith said — including how the state described the quality of life.

Stamford still has room to grow

The other slide highlighting Connecticut’s bids in that nationwide assessment was the drill-down of detail about available locations in Stamford. The interactive map, showing the past, present and future of the harbor area, reveals that there’s plenty of waterfront space left down there, past Harbor Point — including the old Pitney Bowes headquarters.

That defies the old saw that Hartford offers available space and Stamford offers access. “The question is how big does Stamford want to grow and that is a big discussion here,” McGee said. “You have to look at not just land mass but zoned land.”

We must figure out the new economy faster

Connecticut knows its old-line corporate giants can’t deliver job growth. Amazon told Catherine Smith the state should “mature even more in your ability to provide tech talent,” Smith recalls.

“Since then we’ve been doing even more,” Smith said, naming initiatives in Hartford and elsewhere. Companies such as genetics tester Sema4 are adding jobs in Stamford. As with just about everything, we’ve made some progress but not enough.

“It is a very awkward time,” McGee said. “The new economy that’s emerging here is not fully formed yet.”

In Danbury, Mayor Mark Boughton touted the city’s relatively young average age, an hour from New York. And Boughton gained some notice, along with good-natured ribbing, with an Amazon video that was first out of the gate last year. Danbury geotagged the video around the Amazon headquarters in Seattle. “They kind of knew we were out there, so we got a nice call,” Boughton said — reflecting smart use of technology, a sign of what the state needs to do.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com

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