Rendering of Facebook's new data center complex in Fort Worth.

Politics & Government

Amazon HQ Bid Could Boil Down to Dallas vs. Fort Worth Brawl

Would an Amazon headquarters in Fort Worth eat away at the success of Dallas' tech sector?

Just for fun, let’s put the cart before the horse. Let’s say that, after October 19, when Amazon gets all the headquarters relocation bids metropolitan regions around the country have been busily preparing, they look at the Dallas-Fort Worth regional bid and start quoting their Davy Crockett: “You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”

What will attract the company to North Texas? Speaking about the ongoing going effort to organize the regional bid for the headquarters, Mayor Mike Rawlings says the various chambers, cities, and officials in North Texas who are participating in the process are selling the region’s central location, its strong tech employee base, the market’s livability, and the area’s role as a logistics center. They are also marketing its business friendly, low-regulation environment, while attempting to overcome some of the more Crockett-esque aspects of the Texas brand, like its state government.

“I don’t want to be insecure about it because we shouldn’t be,” Rawlings said. “Dallas is a very progressive city, but we’ve got to make sure they know that because some people might think that Texas is a big amalgamation of these thoughts. And I know [Amazon founder and CEO Jeff] Bezos spoke out against the bathroom bill.”

But let’s say Bezos and Amazon get past the clownish, cartoonish sideshow that the Texas Legislature has become. Let’s say Amazon also passes on the cities the mayor believes are DFW’s toughest competitors – east coast locales like Boston, Philadelphia, or Northern Virginia, or central time zone cities like Denver, Austin, or Minneapolis. Let’s pretend the Seattle-based company sees that North Texas offers numerous attractive potential headquarters locations and (somewhat surprisingly) a deeper tech employee base than Austin. And let’s say that the region manages to sell itself without diluting the message.

If that happens, Rawlings believes the end game will be a fight for the region’s cities to win, even if, in recent years, Collin County has sucked up much of the corporate relocation.

“You’ve got to start with the premise that customer is always right, whatever they want they need to get,” Rawlings says. “It is hard to tell from the RFP if they prefer one or the other [an urban vs. suburban location]. We’ve looked at the RFP, and advisers have told us take that RFP very literal. But if you take that situation in Seattle, there is no question that that urban site in Dallas or Fort Worth will fit more of their past strategies.”

Which sets up a potentially complicated scenario. An Amazon headquarters in North Texas – wherever it is located – will have an impact on the entire region, just as the relocation of large corporations like Toyota and AT&T have boosted locations well-beyond the boundaries of the cities they made home. That said, an Amazon in Dallas will also not be a panacea for everything that ails this city – its economy, and its lingering issues with poverty, inequality, education, and mobility. Nevertheless, an Amazon HQ will have a huge — potentially transformative — impact on its host city .

“It creates a huge boom,” Rawlings says. “Whether it is downtown, North Dallas, South Dallas, wherever they put their flag would change that part of the city significantly.”

And it’s not just the influx of 50,000 employees, or the support businesses, accompanying services, or associated economic activity an Amazon HQ would stimulate.

“I think it is an employer that is going to push us from an education standpoint, and that’s what I want,” Rawlings says. “Obviously the brand ID puts you up a notch in everybody’s mind. The thing that I’m most excited about is to become a real center for big data.”

Despite this potential identity-changing impact the headquarters could have on the city, Rawlings believes it is too early to dig into the potential Dallas site plans that have begun to surface from community groups and real estate developers.

“I think we’re not talking about is really what is happening on a national level – why should they go to east coast, why stay in central time zone?” he says. “Sites are way down the list.”

Which exposes a risk implicit in the entire regional bid process. If Amazon is indeed looking for an urban location for their home, and North Texas manages convince the company that it is the right environment and location for their new home, in the end, Amazon could simply choose Fort Worth over Dallas.

Would that be a win for Dallas? I’m not so sure. We’ve seen what kind of long term effect losing core business to other parts of the region can have on Dallas – for example, Alliance’s success at luring logistics and distribution away from South Dallas is perhaps the greatest missed opportunity for southern sector revitalization in a generation or more.

Would losing Amazon to Fort Worth set up a similar negative inertia? And if so, would Dallas be better off if Amazon relocated outside of the region rather than set up shop next door?

Rawlings isn’t worried about that just yet.

“I’d love to get into that place, and I bet [Fort Worth] Mayor Price would too,” Rawlings says. “We’d love to be frightening amongst ourselves. I always believe I live in this big thing called DFW.  When something shows up in Plano or Frisco, it is okay. But my job is to try to get it in Dallas.”

So for now, it is time to play nice with the neighbors.

“The job one is to make sure that we get to the next round,” he says. “And then the game changes.”

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