Viewpoint: Ottawa has a good chance in the race to host Amazon

By Sarah Newman

E-commerce giant Amazon is searching for a place to put its brand-new “HQ2” — and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has been on the move.

Watson was in Seattle recently, making his argument for why Amazon’s second-ever North American headquarters — and the 50,000 high-income jobs expected to go with it — should be located in Ottawa, likely Kanata to be more specific.

And to be honest, Watson’s chances don’t look half-bad.

With major American cities such as Austin, New York and Chicago in the running, it seems at first glance that humble Ottawa is unlikely to win the bid. Downtown Ottawa, however, fits every one of Amazon’s stringent requirements for the HQ2 location: workforce smarts, schools, transit, and speedy Internet.

The latest National Household Survey cites Ottawa-Gatineau as the most university-educated city in Canada. We have three post-secondary computer science programs that have near 100-per-cent job-placement rates. We have an easy-to-reach international airport, and will soon have a brand new LRT system with expansions planned over the next two decades.

We have plentiful government-laid fibre lines for lightning-fast Internet. And we already have the highest median income in Canada, so plopping down 50,000 high-paying jobs onto Ottawa is unlikely to lead to the controversial gentrification and conspicuous inequality that plagued Amazon’s original Seattle HQ — and generated lots of bad press. Why wouldn’t Amazon founder Jeff Bezos choose Ottawa?

With NPR reporting that the average Amazon HQ2 salary is likely to top $100,000 USD (about $123,000 CAD), it’s easy to see why mayors across North America — Watson included — are jumping at the chance to befriend Bezos. But what if Ottawa actually got the bid? Where would that mammoth office space go? Many say Kanata, the tech-hub home to a Blackberry office, a future Apple campus and self-driving car firms.

It’s likely that Amazon’s chief recruitment target would be young, university-educated downtown-dwellers. Those are the workers the company typically recruits in Seattle. Amazon’s original HQ is situated in the central downtown Denny Regrade neighbourhood of Seattle, in three massive office towers.

In fact, Amazon’s website boasts that 20 per cent of its Seattle employees walk to work, and that 15 per cent live in the same zip code as the office. It brags about choosing an accessible, urban campus, “even though it would have been cheaper to move to the suburbs.”

So why is the assumption among tech blogs, programmers and columnists that Amazon would place any potential Ottawa office in stodgy, big-box, car-commuter Kanata?

The fact is, Kanata would not be a good place to put HQ2 for one simple reason — young people just don’t own cars like they used to. Industry publication DrivingSales found that millennials drive 20 per cent less than their parents, with many not even bothering to acquire a driver’s licence. Whether that’s due to environmentalism, improvements in public transit or the increasing cost of fuel, the outcome is still the same: millennials don’t want to commute into Kanata.

They want to walk to work, and they want to work in a vibrant urban core — something Amazon already understands in Seattle.

So why not ditch Kanata as an option, emulate Amazon’s Seattle HQ, and put the HQ2 offices somewhere more in line with the wishes of the youthful crowd it wants to attract: Centretown.

While Kanata tech firms like You.i TV woo employees with snack jars, movie premieres, and free massages, and still-younger startups equip their offices with beer fridges and Nerf guns, Shopify’s central Elgin Street location is attracting so much talent that the e-commerce juggernaut only hires 0.9 per cent of applicants — an acceptance rate six times lower than Harvard.

The future Amazon Ottawa should make the right decision and resist the Silicon Valley-style temptation of infantilizing young workers. Build HQ2 in one — or three — of Centretown’s underused office buildings, and make the workplace truly attractive to young, educated Ottawans.