Soul searching after Amazon snub


When Inc. announced its much anticipated “shortlist” for the location of its second headquarters (what it’s calling HQ2), there was little surprise that Milwaukee wasn’t on it.

In all, 238 cities and jurisdictions, including Milwaukee, submitted proposals to the company.

The fact that Milwaukee did not make Amazon’s list of 20 finalists and the fact that nobody really thought Milwaukee ever had a chance say something about the city and region, and it isn’t good.

Amazon took a look at the Milwaukee area and determined there are at least 20 other places where it would rather be. Several on its list are much bigger than Milwaukee, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but some are comparable peers, like Indianapolis, Nashville, Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh.

Losing the bid for the Amazon HQ2 certainly isn’t the end of the world, but state and local leaders need to examine why Milwaukee didn’t even make the list of finalists and figure out how to address our weaknesses.

The Amazon RFP said it was looking for a “stable and business-friendly environment and tax structure.” It asked respondents to “identify incentive programs available.”

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the Legislature have been very aggressive about making Wisconsin business friendly. They’ve lowered taxes, reduced regulations and made Wisconsin a right-to-work state. Last year, Wisconsin was ranked the 10th best state for business by Chief Executive magazine. The state has certainly been willing to provide incentives to attract companies, as evidenced by the huge Foxconn Technology Group deal.

But all of that wasn’t enough to impress Amazon. Something’s missing.

Amazon’s RFP said it was looking for “locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent.”

Talent is a huge issue. Milwaukee is not a major tech industry center, so it doesn’t have a lot of tech talent. Madison is considered a strong tech center, anchored by Verona’s Epic Systems Corp., but that region is smaller than what Amazon was seeking.

Under Walker, Wisconsin has been aggressive in supporting manufacturing companies, its traditional base, but tech companies are the future and other regions are doing a better job developing that sector.

To attract businesses that could locate anywhere, like Amazon, and to grow the businesses we already have, we need talent.

It’s no coincidence that most of the cities on Amazon’s shortlist have major universities. Columbus has Ohio State University, Pittsburgh has Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.

Wisconsin is running ads in Chicago to try to convince millennials to move here. A better approach would be to invest more in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to make it a great university that attracts bright minds and produces top talent that can either work for area companies or start their own businesses.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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