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Editorial: Pursuit of Amazon HQ will be valuable even if WNY loses out

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” – Retired NHL great Wayne Gretzky

Yes, of course Buffalo should try to secure the new Amazon headquarters and the tens of thousands of jobs that come with it. We would be crazy not to make the best case possible.

That doesn’t require anyone to wear rose-colored glasses or otherwise to abandon common sense. Other cities are clearly better positioned than Buffalo to capture the Amazon flag – just as others were more likely to land the hemisphere’s largest solar panel manufacturing plant. But this town is persistent and it’s learned something about beating the odds. The worst that could happen is that the city learns something more about how to compete for high-profile companies and where the gaps exist in its pitch.

The prize is what makes this worth the effort, even if it’s a long shot. Amazon is one of the world’s best-known brands and most powerful companies. Its vision extends far into the future and is all but guaranteed to be relevant for decades to come. Its headquarters is in Seattle, but it now wants to establish a second one, which it has dubbed HQ2, and it promises up to 50,000 jobs – a little more than the entire city of Niagara Falls – and many of them high-paying.
Buffalo can boast several of the company’s requirements:

• Our metropolitan area, counting Erie and Niagara counties, tops 1 million people.

• We are near an international airport.

• We have the ability to provide “on-site, direct access” to mass transit (rail and bus).

On the downside, Buffalo is smaller than other potential sites, such as Boston and Pittsburgh, and may not compete as well on the level of technical expertise Amazon wants. Most troublesome, perhaps, is the company’s requirement of a state and locality with a “stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure.”

New York is infamous for being unfriendly to business. That’s why it has to compensate with so many incentive programs. They could help to level the playing field, at least some.

In the case of Amazon, Thomas Kucharski, president and CEO of Invest Buffalo Niagara, suggests $1 billion in incentives will need to be on the table as just the opening bid for the company. That would require the full support of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Because he has been so committed to Western New York and landing Amazon would be such a plum for the entire state, Amazon will have Albany’s full attention.

The company would also require some local incentives, but the organization that could best provide them here, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, recently adopted a duplicative and potentially onerous policy on equal pay.

Pushed by Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, the policy not only duplicates state and federal laws, but gives the IDA authority to audit the payrolls of any beneficiary to ensure that men and women are paid equally. It’s hard to imagine that will help the cause.

Still, despite the state and regional disincentives, this is a good place to do business. It’s why Geico came to Western New York and has expanded here. Land values remain comparatively inexpensive and the workforce has a great reputation.

The area’s economic development leaders are right to pursue this opportunity, and they should do it aggressively and realistically, paying special attention to areas where the effort might come up short. There aren’t likely to be many additional chances to go after a pot of 50,000 jobs, but, in the worst case, if we lose out and learn valuable lessons, the area might snag a business offering 5,000 jobs or 500 jobs.

Would anyone feel cheated by that?

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