Back Pittsburgh for Amazon bid

A phrase I use a bit too often, but I love nonetheless, is “punching above your weight.” Maybe it’s too many fond memories of Boom-Boom Mancini and Kelly Pavlik, but it’s a source of pride when I get to use that phrase. That’s why I was so happy to see collective agencies in the Valley submit a proposal for the new Amazon “HQ2,” using an exciting new enterprise park in Howland for its base. The area’s population and demographics will lessen the probability, but the area must show it’s not afraid to compete toe-to-toe with bigger metropolises. That is quintessential punching above your weight.

That being said, it is now time for the Valley and Ohio to get serious about its chances, and to do something bold, innovative and against the grain: to throw its weight behind another city. And that city is Pittsburgh.

Rating agency Moodys forecast Pittsburgh to be fifth in their choice based on Amazon’s baseline definitions for eligibility. But when adding an additional factor, geography, Moodys catapults Pittsburgh to second, behind Philadelphia. Pittsburgh creates enough geographic diversification away from Amazon’s prime headquarters in Seattle, and is positioned to tap into a talent pool that can pull from the Midwest and the Northeast. It’s also probably the best example of the RustBelt comeback story, so I think Amazon can boast about transformation of a regional economy while playing it a bit safe.

Youngstown offers tangible precedence in two states banding together. When President Obama chose Youngstown to be the site of his first national public-private innovation center in advanced manufacturing in 2012, the award was granted largely due to a regional teamwork collaboration already in place. The “TechBelt Initiative” was a band of economic and academic brothers that encompassed Cleveland, the Valley and greater Pittsburgh. And while the renamed center America Makes may not have in itself created significant new jobs downtown, the momentum it created in the region is tangible. Firms all over this super region have adopted additive manufacturing technology, YSU and the Youngstown Business Incubator are catalysts for the technology development on an international scale (with collaboration from Israel to Slovakia occurring), and firms like GE are setting up research centers in Pittsburgh to be where the action is.

Since America Makes, the TechBelt has been more dormant than it should be. U.S Rep. Tim Ryan’s good and bold initiative should be dusted off to help the region with a legitimate shot of landing HQ2. And in a way, it’s almost better for the Valley if Pittsburgh wins it. NPR and CNBC ran pieces this week asking if it’s truly in a city’s best interest to lure HQ2. In traditional economic development tool boxes, money is slapped on the hood of companies as incentive to bring them in. While in many cases, economists debate whether those incentives result in positive wealth generation for the region. According to the CNBC story, in this case it probably would ($5 billion and 50,000 jobs over 5 years is truly impactful). In the Valley’s case, it could be too big. Housing prices could shoot up and cause issues for existing Valley residents. Wage inflation could impact all the great Valley companies trying to keep their companies profitable.

While not confirmed, an innovative idea for the Pittsburgh bid is to redevelop Pittsburgh International Airport’s Landside Terminal (the Arrivals / Departures Hall) for HQ2, as PIT announced it is building a modern replacement terminal tied to the Airside terminals. This is where the Valley could have its cake and eat it, too. That location would draw talent from the Valley to work there every day. It was widely known when US Air had its hub at PIT, many pilots and personnel lived in the Valley’s suburbs. If Amazon landed at that location, people from the Valley would have meaningful, high-income employment opportunities, while not taxing the Valley’s limited resources.

This is why the agency JobsOhio should consider joint incentives with the Pittsburgh bid. Some of the incentives could create a direct benefit to Ohioans. I would be so bold to consider creating a commuter rail line from the Valley to the Pittsburgh Airport site. Such rail service existed generations ago. And as someone who takes the train to work everyday, it’s a great and stress free way to prepare and unwind.

Amazon turned the world on its head with its innovations to shop, read, and exist. A proposal to lure HQ2 deserves the same amount of fundamental rethink to how governments bring investment in. Two governors, two states and two regions throwing a bigger hat into the ring will not go unnoticed. And that’s what it will take for an Amazon to rumble out of the jungle and into the region we all love.

Planey is a Mahoning Valley native who now serves as director for a New York City financial corporation.



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