Economic development agencies in Buffalo and Rochester are teaming up to make a play for Amazon’s second headquarters. The response to Amazon’s Request for Proposals is due in one week — on October 19. The stakes are high, as Amazon pledges billions in investment and 50,000 jobs. Luring Amazon will undoubtedly cost tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer incentives and have an impact on transportation and housing.
On the one hand, pitching a mega-region makes sense. Buffalo and Rochester combined have a larger labor pool, more universities, more cultural amenities, varied real estate opportunities, more recreational activities and increased housing options. In most parts of the country, it’s not a big deal to travel an hour to get someplace.
On the other hand, Rochesterians and Buffalonians don’t often interact, unless they’re at a Bills game. Buffalo and Rochester do not currently function as a mega-region. They’re considered separate metropolitan statistical areas, defined by population density and economic and social ties. Fewer than 1,500 residents of each city commute to the other, according to 2013 Census data. Fewer than 2,000 people moved from Erie County to Monroe County – and vice versa — between 2011 and 2015. These are two distinct and separate regions.
To get an idea of what the joint application may look like, let’s turn to Amazon’s RFP.
Amazon needs 8 million square feet, which is the equivalent of 8 Sibley Buildings or 8 of now-gone Midtown Plazas. Clearly, Amazon will need multiple sites. Amazon’s downtown Seattle headquarters has 33 buildings.
Amazon says it’s okay to pitch sites in more than one jurisdiction, but it wants a campus. “The sites do not have to be contiguous, but should be in proximity to each other to foster a sense of place and be pedestrian-friendly,” the RFP notes. It’s hard to believe the company would be okay with a campus separated by 60 miles. A hybrid option appears unlikely.
That means Amazon is going to pick either Rochester or Buffalo, but not both. The application will pitch two sites in each locale, according to Buffalo Business First. (You can bet Rochester’s Eastman Business Park, which has dozens of sites for sale or lease, will be in the application. There’s likely no other place in Western New York that can so easily accommodate Amazon’s real estate, infrastructure and timeline needs.)
You may be wondering if the state-backed STAMP project in Genesee County – a halfway point between Buffalo and Rochester – would be a good fit. Amazon’s RFP requires any site to be accessible by mass transit. This makes the far-flung campus a non-starter. (STAMP is an unfortunate exercise in job sprawl – forcing workers to travel long distances by car. Car-dependence is also a reason a Buffalo-Rochester hybrid headquarters would be bad.)
If Amazon picks Rochester or Buffalo, you’ll hear the losing city say we’ll get spillover jobs. Governor Andrew Cuomo will justify giving Amazon tax dollars because it will help two cities, not one. If that were true, we’d already be a mega-region. Our economies and workforces would be far more closely intertwined. It’s possible Amazon would suck residents from one city to the other.
Perhaps Rochester and Buffalo should be a megalopolis. (Richard Florida thinks we should throw in Toronto.) But there are real barriers to making that happen:
– Train and bus travel between the two regions is irregular and impractical. Vehicles remain the number one way to travel.
– The state treats the regions as separate entities, forcing them to compete against each other for aid.
– There’s little cooperation within metro areas when it comes to land use and economic development planning.
Amazon might be able to turn Rochester and Buffalo into a mega-region. It’s more likely that if Amazon chooses Western New York, it will be choosing only one of us — and winner takes all.
Author: Rachel Barnhart