Anna Smith

Anna Smith

As the story starts, 1992 was not a good year for Oklahoma City. The cash-strapped city lost a big bid to house a new United Airlines maintenance facility; Indianapolis took the prize.

The major reason Oklahoma City lost out on this and other bids to bring new business to town was because the community’s low overall quality of life and unhealthy population discouraged companies that didn’t want to pay for higher health insurance and treatment costs. United also felt the city was not one where its employees would want to live, since the community lacked the amenities that attract skilled workers.

Civic leaders in Oklahoma City at the time recognized they needed to do something to revitalize their urban core. In response, then-Mayor Ron Norick proposed the Metropolitan Area Projects initiative in 1993. Norick hoped the MAPS program would improve the community and revitalize downtown, even though he was up against an anti-tax constituency. After passing by a slim margin, in December 1993, MAPS put into effect a temporary, penny-on-the-dollar sales tax that collected $309 million, including $54 million in interest. Those revenues paid for multiple capital improvement projects focused on the central core.

In time, the city's downtown started to come alive, attracting new economic development to the region. The area also launched a health initiative in conjunction with MAPS that helped to improve overall wellness.

The initiative has been wildly successful. After the first two MAPS programs and for the first time, Oklahoma City had suddenly become a regular presence on a number of “best of” lists.

•••

Fast forward to 2017. Amazon, the Seattle-based internet commerce company, is considering building a huge second base. Metro areas around the country are engaged in a bidding war, scrambling to apply and entice the behemoth. Amazon promises the winner a $5 billion investment and 50,000 new jobs with average pay in excess of $100,000 over the next two decades.

And (surprise, surprise) many of Amazon’s criteria for locating its new plant relate to quality of life.

In the eight pages of guidance that Amazon provided cities, the following standout criteria emerge. They’re looking for:

• a metropolitan area in North America of at least a million people

• with a “stable business climate for growth”

• where the right labor pool is skilled (tech, primarily) and growing

• with the features that young, skilled workers like, and where they think they can afford to live (where the quality of life is high)

• in a place where workers can get around easily (with a good mass transit system near an international airport).

Now, I know, some would say we should just admit we’re out of the running after the first criteria is not met. (The population in our metro area falls around 840,000.) I disagree. We’ll be pushing a million people in a few short years. Let’s look to the future. We could be competing for the next “Amazon” headquarters soon enough.

And these criteria are a helpful metric upon which to judge our region’s competitiveness with other cities in attracting and retaining strong businesses and an educated workforce. Why not see how we stack up?

Stable business climate for growth: The Amazon criteria recognizes cities with top job growth over the last decade. Amazon is not looking to help underdog cities that need a boost in their economy, it wants to locate in a metro area where the economy is already healthy and shows signs of a strong future.

Skilled labor force: In a New York Times piece last month on the Amazon criteria (“Dear Amazon, We Picked Your New Headquarters for You”), the authors suggest that the company will focus on metro areas where more than one in eight workers is in an industry related to tech, science or professional services. Put another way, over 12 percent of the labor pool needs to be employed in a tech, science or professional industry to be competitive. Only 8 percent in Kern County are employed in such an industry, according to U.S. Census data.

The segment of the labor pool that Amazon is particularly interested in — software programmers and designers — needs to be growing rapidly. For its recruiting, Amazon also says it requires a strong university system nearby.

This focus on tech is the way the world is headed.

Bakersfield should work to attract and retain high-level STEM and professional workers. And how does it do that? A strong university system helps. But it’s mainly through quality of life.

High quality of life: The Amazon criteria place importance on a city’s quality of life. “Quality of life” here appears to mean that the housing costs are reasonable and amenities plentiful. The winning region will have the restaurants, outdoor recreation, cultural attractions and general cool of Amazon’s first home, Seattle.

Our area boasts a low cost of living. This is in our favor. We’d score high in comparison to New York, the Bay Area and Boston, with their sky rocketing housing costs. But cost of living should be balanced with amenities. And are we really focused on improving amenities like a buzzing downtown and outdoor recreation, or at least the public’s perception of what our community has to offer? Our marketing efforts could certainly improve. Do we want to admit we could do better?

Good transit: Amazon prioritizes mass transit. To remain competitive, metro areas need to be among the top 15 in the country for workers who commute by transit. While commute times in our region are short, the rate of commuters who use public transportation is dismally low. (Only 1.1 percent of Kern County workers over 16 years of age commute by public transit, per U.S. Census data.) We should prioritize change in this area not only because it is good for the environment but to remain competitive as a region to outside businesses and workers.

Amazon also lists proximity to an international airport as critical. The company wants workers to have easy access to direct flights to major cities. While some might argue our area is becoming a suburb of Los Angeles, I would argue we cannot compete in this realm. We don’t have a nearby international airport with direct flights to New York and Chicago.

There are rumors of local groups putting applications together in a bid for the Amazon plant. Like Oklahoma City, Bakersfield will not likely win. However, we could use this rubric to spark positive change. This self-reflective exercise could trigger programs like OKC’s MAPS initiative that lead to capital improvements. Who knows, if we focused on attracting and retaining a highly educated professional workforce, strengthening university programs, enhancing and marketing the amenities like a thriving downtown and outdoor recreation that matter to a professional labor pool, and improving mass transit, perhaps Bakersfield could entice the next Amazon and improve our own story.

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about downtown Bakersfield. She can be reached at anna@sagebakersfield.com. The opinions expressed are her own.

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