Ambition Won’t Get Us Amazon, But Could Land Us Another UPS or Air Canada

Image: Associated Press file photo

You might have heard that Amazon is shopping around a 50,000-person head office to U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions with one million or more in population.

It is easily the largest single-firm economic development project shopped around like this in the past decade – maybe in my lifetime.

Conservatively, those 50,000 jobs will boost employment in other sectors by at least double that amount, and one economist said it would boost state-wide employment by five times. I’ve always been a little skeptical of those massive multipliers, not least because some of the new growth will likely displace existing economic activity.

Anyway, it got minds buzzing a bit, even here in Atlantic Canada. I received multiple, and fairly serious, emails asking me if there was any possible chance? Nope. In fact, my suspicion, echoed in the Economist magazine this week, is that Amazon already knows where it wants to go, and is using this whole city-bidding war to boost the eventual incentives it will get in the city that it already knows it will be setting up in. But I can be cynical at times.

The whole ordeal prompted an overly excited columnist at the Times & Transcript to pen a surreal column about the entire Maritime provinces putting in a joint bid to carve up the head office from Saint John to Lunenburg, linked together by a high-speed train moved along by pixies sprinkling their dust.

Pixie dust aside, I do believe a project like this – if phased in over five to seven years – could be easily done in a Halifax or maybe even a New Brunswick city as people will move to work in an Amazon head office.

When RIM (remember RIM?) announced it would expand in Halifax it asked employees in Ontario if any would like to relocate, and as it was told to me they were inundated with requests. But no big firm is going to take a flyer on a small city and, BTW, no small city or province can stump up the billions of dollars that Amazon will receive to locate in Toronto or Atlanta.

But it does provide an opportunity to talk once again about ambition.

In the 1940s, my grandmother told her sons they would have to leave the Miramichi if they wanted to be successful. In the early 1990s, I was told there is no way any auto manufacturer would ever want to set up in New Brunswick, even as they set up in droves in the most podunk off-the-beaten-track places in the southern United States.

Even the big firms that set up here got the usual “after the subsidies dry up they will be gone.” FYI: they are almost all still here – UPS, ExxonMobil, Air Canada, Fairmont – all the big firms that set up in the early to mid 1990s.

In fact, I have heard this refrain my whole career. Why would anyone want to move to New Brunswick? Why would an immigrant want to settle here? They will just get their permanent residency status and leave to find greener pastures. Why would a national or international firm set up here? There must be some backroom deal, some neutered labour laws … something, or else they would not be here. Why would an ambitious entrepreneur set up here? They’d be better off just moving to San Jose or Waterloo.

Have a little ambition, folks. Flip the question. Why wouldn’t they want to locate here? Look at this place – 10-minute daily commutes, buy a big house and a cottage on the water here for what you pay for a small house in Toronto. Be able to pick up the phone and talk to a mayor or business leader – try that in Chicago.

Our negativity about ourselves is part of the problem – it is self-reinforcing. It’s like sharks smelling blood in the water.  If you don’t even believe in your community why would anyone else?

David Campbell writes a blog about economic development in Atlantic Canada called It’s The Economy, Stupid. This post was republished with permission. Campbell also operates Jupia Consultants, a consulting company that conducts demographic and economic analysis.

Huddle publishes commentaries from groups and individuals on important business issues facing the Maritimes. These commentaries do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Huddle.