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Editorial: Why Roanoke should make a pitch for Amazon

Editorial: Why Roanoke should make a pitch for Amazon

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The video begins with a fuddy-duddy teacher standing at a chalkboard, pointing with a stick to list of cities and their populations.

“These are all the cities with populations of more than one million,” the teacher drones on. “These are the only cities that qualify for corporate headquarters. These are — .”

The teacher looks exasperated. A kid in the back of the room is raising her hand to ask a question.

“Why are those the only ones that qualify for corporate headquarters?,” the girl asks.

“Because these are the only ones with more than one million people,” the teacher says, sharply, and tries to move on.

The girl raises her hand again. “But why do cities have to have more than one million people to qualify for corporate headquarters?” she asks.

The teacher sighs, forced to explain the obvious. “Because only cities with more than one million people will have the talent pool big enough.”

The girl in the back of the room still isn’t satisfied. “But what if there were a smaller city that, per capita, had more college students than Boston, San Francisco, Raleigh or Austin?”

The teacher has had enough. “We’re not here to talk about hypotheticals.”

“But I’m not talking about hypotheticals,” the girl says. “I’m talking about Roanoke.”

That’s where the video cuts to the sales pitch: Why must the online retail giant Amazon stick to cities of one million-plus for its second headquarters city? Why couldn’t it consider Roanoke — where our region really does have more college students per capita (the key phrase) than the nation’s top high-tech hotspots?

Where can you find this video pitching Roanoke — by which we really mean anywhere in our region? Nowhere. It doesn’t exist. Not yet anyway. But the point is, it could.

There is no reason why Roanoke couldn’t make a play for Amazon’s second headquarters. In fact, there are some reasons why Roanoke ought to — even though we don’t meet Amazon’s official criteria of having a million-plus people.

If you count everybody from Lynchburg to the New River Valley, you wind up with 777,919, still short. Our gentle, but firm, counterpoint: Amazon was built on challenging existing business models. So why should it accept the conventional wisdom that it has to be in a big city? Why not challenge that conventional wisdom yet again – and make a statement that economic growth doesn’t have to be confined to the nation’s big cities?

The odds of success are admittedly close to zero. So?

A spirited campaign calling attention to our hidden treasure — that wealth of college students in our midst — would raise Roanoke’s profile and might help us with other tech companies.

It also ought to help the bid that Virginia will make on Northern Virginia’s behalf, by highlighting the talent pipeline available elsewhere in the state. Gov. Terry McAuliffe says the state will pitch a site near the Fairfax-Loudoun county border, close to Metro’s Silver Line. As for Roanoke, “we’ll comply with the RFP [Request For Proposals],” he says. “We can’t tell the company what to do.”

So we’re on our own, if we want to try this at all. Any Roanoke pitch can’t be a conventional application. Our whole argument is to get Amazon to think outside the box, so we can’t operate inside that same box ourselves.

It’s got to be a very public courtship designed to get Amazon’s attention and persuade corporate executives to re-think one of their core requirements — that one million-plus threshold.

We could launch a video campaign, such as the one above. Or we could try some other unconventional approaches. TORC Robotics in Blacksburg is experimenting with self-driving cars. Send that car cross-country with a delegation to hand-deliver the official invite — as a way to showcase our technical talent. Or we come up with some other grass-roots ways to put ourselves on Amazon’s radar screen. Whatever it is has to be well thought-out and well-coordinated and emphasize the right message.

The message can’t be based on sentiment, or desire. Lots of places would love Amazon. We simply want to be able to make a sound, if unconventional, business case for why Amazon’s second headquarters doesn’t have to be in one of the usual suspects. Appeal to Amazon’s social conscience — not out of any sense of charity, but out of clear-eyed economic reality. Economic growth in this country is clustering in the big cities. It’s been doing that for a long time, of course, but that process is accelerating as the industrial age gives way to the information age. We can sit around all day long and brainstorm government policies that might change that. Here’s a chance for one of the leading players in the free market to actually do something about it in a very dramatic way.

Amazon is probably looking for another Seattle; people tend to gravitate to what they know. If you look at us the right way, Roanoke can legitimately claim to be the Seattle of the Blue Ridge. In fact, a few years ago, we had an unsuccessful city council candidate complain that we were turning into Seattle. Look at things broadly: Seattle was a transportation and manufacturing city at the base of a mountain until it became a technology town. That sounds an awful lot like Roanoke, just substitute the Mill Mountain Star for the Space Needle, and subtract the rain. We just need to expand the tech part.

There is, however, another out-of-the-box contender. One of the cities that shows up on almost everybody’s list of candidate cities is Toronto. Amazon carefully spoke of a “North American” location and specifically asked for proposals from “states, provinces and metro areas.” Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore thinks Amazon was sending an unmistakable signal there: Amazon could become a half-Canadian company.

The Toronto-Waterloo corridor is Canada’s Silicon Valley. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos — like other tech leaders — has clashed with President Trump on immigration policies. Canada pursues a bipartisan national policy of actively seeking immigrants, especially those with technical skills. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would probably dig deep into his nation’s treasury to load up a Toronto offer with incentives.

Amazon would make a heck of a statement if it went to Toronto. It also would make one if it even just considered Roanoke.

Roanoke should press its case for Amazon to make the latter statement.

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