Saturday, April 20, 2024

Don’t jump on that Amazon bandwagon quite yet

I’m an optimist, often to the point of naiveté, yet I don’t share the rampant enthusiasm to throw massive dollars to attract Amazon’s “second headquarters” to North Carolina. Economic-development officials in Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle are pitching their communities as great locations for a purported 50,000-employee campus. Given the hype, of course, it would be career negligence for chamber execs not to make the case. Any of the three markets would be terrific launching pads for Amazon’s paradigm-shifting innovations. Quality of life is North Carolina’s ace in the hole.

Still, the process reeks of a shakedown: Get your bid in by Oct. 19 or experience eternal regret! More important, the recruitment sends a bad signal to businesses that have invested in North Carolina, in some cases for generations, with much less love from the government.

If our state has the finances to support this new shiny object, and we are committed to “picking winners” in economic development, why not use the money to develop partnerships and boost innovation at existing employers — particularly those facing intense competition from Amazon? Lowe’s Cos., the giant home-improvement chain based in Mooresville, is an example. It doesn’t need its home state to finance a competitor that could threaten key chunks of its business. How about an investment to encourage Lowe’s to shift some of its 1,000 IT employees in India back to Iredell County?

Neither should the state assist a company targeting Ingles, Lowes Foods, Earth Fare and other grocers that collectively employ tens of thousands of North Carolinians. Walmart employs more than 50,000 people in our state, and it’s expanding its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters without begging for billions. Why help its archrival?

Given Amazon’s ambition, financial services is an obvious growth market as the retailing and payments sectors merge. Wouldn’t our state be better served by supporting innovation at BB&T, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, which together employ more than 60,000 people in the state?

A counter argument is that Amazon may be the world’s most transformative company. While BofA CEO Brian Moynihan is best known for cutting costs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is all about growth and disruption. Hitching one’s wagon to Amazon is a shrewd, sure-fire bet.

But incentives should help communities attract work performed in other nations, not assist the decline of domestic employers. Wisconsin is offering a Chinese company billions of dollars to build a plant to make flat screens near Racine, rather than in Asia. North Carolina is hustling for a 4,000-employee Toyota-Mazda plant. Neither deal poses threats to other U.S. companies.

Last month’s cover story on Kinston native Stephen Hill’s hefty investments to revive the small city generated lots of positive reader feedback. We hope the same occurs with this month’s feature on the Shuford family, which has invested in the Hickory area for 137 years.

North Carolinians are passionate about well-reasoned, grassroots efforts to boost our state’s momentum. Those efforts aren’t as sexy as the Amazon hunt but seem a lot more authentic.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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