Amazon and its 50,000 employees could make Denver the “San Francisco of the plains”

Some residents are wondering not what the Mile High City can do for Amazon, but what Amazon can do for — or what it might do to — the Mile High City.

Amazon's campus in Seattle in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. Photographed from the roof of Amazon's Port 99 building. (Jordan Stead/Amazon)
Images of Amazon's Seattle campus, in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. (Jordan Stead/Amazon)
Amazon’s Seattle campus, in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. (Jordan Stead/Amazon)

With Denver jumping into the national competition to get Amazon’s new headquarters, some residents are wondering not what the Mile High City can do for Amazon, but what Amazon can do for — or what it might do to — the Mile High City.

Amazon’s so called HQ2 is expected to add thousands of jobs wherever it locates, which some view as more of a challenge for Denver than an opportunity, especially since roughly a thousand people already move to the city each month, the cost of housing is increasing and getting around feels more and more like navigating a sliding puzzle.

“A company of this scale, 50,000 tech employees with average wages of $100,000, that could by itself complete the gentrification process of Denver,” said Brad Segal, president of Progressive Urban Management Associates. “We could become San Francisco of the plains — if you will — if we don’t mitigate the impacts.”

Colorado and Denver officials say going after Amazon and its more than $5 billion worth of investment makes sense, and if they successfully land the Seattle-based e-commerce behemoth, the area could be able to attract other major players going forward.

“Adding to our critical mass of Fortune 500s or more visible multinational brands is really important for us to continue to grow and elevate the state and city as a tier one location,” said Michelle Hadwiger, director of global business for the state.

Hadwiger and others from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade are working with the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. to identify sites in and around Denver that fit with what Amazon is looking for. After Aurora, Denver and other interested municipalities provide sites where Amazon could build or renovate, as well as incentives they could offer, the state will submit a final proposal to Amazon. Several states will likely be following a similar process.

“I don’t think the question is going to be, ‘Should we or should we not do this?’ Clearly, we’re going to run after this,” Segal said. “My thoughts are more, ‘If Denver is going to be in the running, how should we do that and how should we compete with other cities?'”

Segal consults organizations on downtown and community development, co-chairs the community organization All in Denver and previously managed economic development programs for the Downtown Denver Partnership. He said that Denver is already a strong candidate to get Amazon — the New York Times named it the No. 1 candidate — so the city could and should avoid feeling the need to offer a big pot of money.

“This an opportunity for Denver to invest in itself as opposed to investing in Amazon,” Segal said.  “What could differentiate Denver from these other cities is not larding incentives at Amazon but actually use this to create a stronger sort of opportunity basis here in terms of affordable housing, education and transportation.”

If Amazon likes Denver as it is and wants to support an inclusive, diverse culture, the city will need to invest civic resources so neighborhoods aren’t changed as a result of Amazon coming, he said.

Amazon's campus in Seattle in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. Photographed from the roof of Amazon's Port 99 building. (Jordan Stead/Amazon)
Amazon’s campus in Seattle in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. Photographed from the roof of Amazon’s Port 99 building. (Jordan Stead/Amazon)

“Having more multinational corporations located in the state helps us to secure more international flight routes, helps us to secure more frequent domestic routes and helps us to diversify the economy — meaning diversification of thought and diversification of ethnicity,” Hadwiger said.

“The more taxpayer dollars that we get flowing into the state and the more investment we get flowing into the state means we get increased revenue which means we have more money to fund infrastructure projects and such.”

Hadwiger called Colorado’s incentive programs “extremely conservative” and said the state won’t be able to offer the kind of large tax breaks or cash perks that other governments might be able to.

“When a company is going to invest $5 billion, they want to know the state’s investing in them as well, so we’re going to work within in the framework of our programs and offer what we can conservatively, as we always do,” she said.

What the state and municipalities will offer remains to be seen. Denver said it plans to follow the typical process of making sure it’s getting more than it’s giving.

“Any proposal would include comprehensive economic analysis, to ensure positive benefits to the city,” said Derek Woodbury, spokesman for the Denver Office of Economic Development.

“Most importantly, in consideration of any opportunity, we look closely at how a company would contribute as a civic steward and partner in our community to help shape a stronger city,” Woodbury said in a statement to Denverite.

Amazon estimates its investments in Seattle from 2010 through 2016 resulted in an additional $38 billion to the city’s economy. The company said it’s looking for “a city that is excited to work with us and where our customers, employees and the community can all benefit.”

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Business & data reporter Adrian D. Garcia can be reached via email at agarcia@denverite.com or twitter.com/adriandgarcia.

 

Adrian D. Garcia

Author: Adrian D. Garcia

Adrian D. Garcia is on business and trends for Denverite, serves as treasurer for the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and on the board of the Denver Press Club. He can be reached at agarcia@denverite.com.