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Amazon to Detroit? Probably not

Sep 11, 2017

Amazon, the huge online retailer that sells everything from cookbooks to caskets, plans to build a second huge headquarters somewhere in America, and Detroit wants it -- badly.

Sandy Baruah, the CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, is part of a team fighting to lure Amazon to the Motor City. Dan Gilbert, who for years has been buying up vast amounts of Detroit real estate, says he's also put together a second team to woo them.

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley wrote that this could mean “the arrival of a company that could bring 50,000 jobs and a whole lot of hope to the Motor City.”

Detroit has an Amazon crush, in other words.

The newspapers have been intently analyzing the city’s pros and cons. Some are worried that our lousy roads, decaying infrastructure and lack of any real mass transit may doom us with Amazon; others think our positive points, including being an international city with no threat of hurricanes, outweigh this.

Well, I hate to be a bargain-basement Cassandra, but I have to tell you that I think it is highly unlikely that Amazon will build its world headquarters in the City of Detroit, for reasons that have nothing to do with crime or race.

It’s because the city doesn’t have vast tracts of land, all in the same place. This is because nobody had much foresight before and during World War II, when the city threw up housing willy-nilly to accommodate those streaming in to work in the Arsenal of Democracy.

When the war ended and the automakers wanted to build big, sprawling modern new plants, they had to go elsewhere, beginning with the suburbs.

Mayor Duggan knew this, but as I reported to you last month, he told me he got a painful reminder this summer when the state was attempting to woo Foxconn, the giant Taiwanese technology firm, to come to Michigan.

Ultimately, Foxconn went to Wisconsin.

But long before that final decision, it became clear the city of Detroit never had a chance.

Foxconn wanted a thousand acres, and while the city owns a lot of land, it is almost all in checkerboards of individual lots and small parcels.

Foxconn wanted a thousand acres, and while the city owns a lot of land, it is almost all in checkerboards of individual lots and small parcels.

Now I am assuming that Amazon wants enough land for a dedicated campus. Detroiters courting the firm are hoping it will be willing to go for multiple offices and locations.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has shown he is about more than money on numerous occasions, including when he bought the Washington Post four years ago without even doing due diligence to see what shape the paper was really in.

And if there is one city where a vast new installation might make a major difference for the good of a community, Detroit is it.

But there are grave reasons to doubt Amazon can find the right space for a second major headquarters in the Motor City itself.

Detroit’s leaders know that too.

“At the end of the day, if it lands in the city or a close suburb, it’s a win for all of us,” Baruah told the Detroit Free Press.

On that, everyone in Michigan should agree.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.