Friday October 20, 2017

Being an Amazon city comes with 'a lot of challenges,' Seattle reporter warns Canada

Canadian cities are competing to be the home of Amazon's second headquarters, but a Seattle journalist says they should be careful what they wish for.

Canadian cities are competing to be the home of Amazon's second headquarters, but a Seattle journalist says they should be careful what they wish for. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

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Story transcript

As Canadian cities and even the prime minister clamour for Amazon's attention, a Seattle journalist is warning us to be careful what we wish for.

Halifax, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., are among the dozens of cities north and south of the border vying to be the home of Amazon's new $5-billion headquarters.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even wrote a letter to the online retailing giant, calling CEO Jeff Bezos by his first name and outlining the reasons why Amazon should call Canada home.

But a Seattle journalist who has seen first-hand Amazon's footprint in his city says Canada shouldn't jump in without considering the potential pitfalls. 

Gregory Scruggs, senior correspondent for Citiscope, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of what he had to say.

What warning would you give to our prime minister if you could?

I would tell the prime minister to check with the residents of the cities that might host Amazon HQ2 and make sure that they agree with him and that they are also on board to potentially receive what one of our local newspaper columnists here in Seattle has described as a "prosperity bomb."

When so many highly paid jobs come all at once, it can be a boost for the economy and tax bases in these cities, but it can also bring a lot of challenges and overwhelm infrastructure if transportation and affordable housing are not already in place, as well as, most damning here I think, increase house prices and rents to unaffordable levels for people not making those tech salaries.

We're talking about HQ2 for Amazon. What is it like to be HQ1?

It is sometimes a bit of a through-the-looking-glass kind of experience, especially in the part of town technically known as South Lake Union, but mostly referred to as "Amazonia."

The people who work there are just kind of a different breed of citizen. They very often recently moved to town from somewhere else. It doesn't seem like they integrate well with a lot of the existing culture in Seattle.

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This aerial view looking north shows a portion of retail giant Amazon's corporate headquarters, bottom centre and right, in the South Lake Union neighbourhood of Seattle. (Anthony Bolante/Reuters)

And then lot of the new business that have sprung up are catering more to that clientele — what has been derisively referred to as the "brogrammer" — the young, highly paid, usually male, usually white tech worker with a lot of disposable income, and interests that maybe aren't in line with the somewhat quirky, somewhat grungy arts culture, divebar, DIY music scene that Seattle is known for. Or, perhaps, was known for.

But, at the same time, you can see why it would be attractive ... to have a huge influx of young, big-spending, well-paid people who have lots of disposable income and would add to your tax base. Kind of appealing, isn't it?

I can see why it's appealing for a mayor or the business elite.

But I urge and caution those leaders to also listen to their citizens, especially the ones who are in, let's say, more working-class jobs or renters or those who are looking to buy a house in the near future.

Check in with those cities and city planners and ask: Do we have a transportation infrastructure ... to accommodate that many newcomers to our city? Do we have affordable housing policies in place knowing that they're likely going to drive up rents and prices?

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Several hundred protesters rally outside the Amazon shareholders meeting being at the Seattle Art Museum on May 24, 2012. (Marcus Donner/Reuters)

Canadian cities would argue that many of the things you say that made Seattle so unlivable for people like yourself when the Amazonians arrived would not be the same in cities in Canada.

In my opinion, the viable Canadian candidates are Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, in no particular order.

So which city in Canada do you think has the best shot?

Toronto, no question.

Seattle has a lot of plusses, but it is not a major world metropolis. ... Toronto absolutely is a major world metropolis.

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Of all the Canadian cities bidding for Amazon's headquarters, Toronto makes the most sense, says journalist Gregory Scruggs. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

You have international air connections all over the planet. You have a sophisticated financial centre. You have a thorough subway system. You have an express train from the airport to downtown. There are a lot of fundamentals that I think would make Toronto appealing for Amazon.

I think a corner of Toronto would feel like Amazonia, but it would take a lot for Toronto to become an Amazon company town if HQ2 located there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Gregory Scruggs.