Correction: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect figure for Kansas City streetcar ridership. It has since been corrected to reflect the system’s more than 3 million riders.
Kansas City wants Amazon. But does the online retail giant want KC?
With only a few days remaining before the deadline to submit proposals for Amazon’s second headquarters, Kansas City leaders have marketing and economic development experts working overtime to land the expected 50,000 jobs that would come with the $5 billion Amazon HQ2.
And while Mayor Sly James made headlines this week for buying 1,000 items from Amazon and touting Kansas City’s greatness in the product reviews, the City of Fountains would be wise to also acknowledge and address some of the concerns that could give Amazon pause.
Startland News gathered 9 pros and cons for choosing KC.
Pro: The Smart City initiative
The $15.7 million public-private Smart City project has transformed downtown into a hotbed of sensor networks and Wi-Fi connectivity on and around the 2.2-mile streetcar line, thanks to collaboration between Kansas City, Sprint, Cisco and Think Big Partners.
This initiative is a key differentiator for Kansas City, leaders said during September’s Smart City Advisory Board meeting.
Although other cities have integrated technology and data into its operations, Kansas City claims it is home to the world’s largest smart city network.
“San Diego has a crazy amount of smart street lights, but they aren’t connected to anything except themselves. New York City has a great Wi-Fi network,” said Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer at the City of Kansas City, Missouri, during September’s advisory board meeting. “But, there’s only one city (Kansas City) that has Wi-Fi tied to an analytics platform, tied to traffic, tied to predictive analytics for potholes. … We think of the comprehensive whole.”
The smart city project wrapped up Phase 1 in April, establishing 328 WiFi access points, 178 smart lighting video nodes and 25 smart kiosks. Phase 1 laid down the foundation on which the city can begin to collect data on downtowners’ behavior.
For phase 2, the city plans to begin the digitization process of Prospect MAX, one of Kansas City’s underdeveloped corridors. The new MAX rapid bus line would increase mobility throughout the Prospect corridor, creating faster bus routes and installing interactive kiosks offering real-time transit information and wireless internet access.
Con: Kansas City International Airport
Although there are current efforts for improvement, Kansas City International Airport is behind modern airports at smaller and similarly sized cities.
The airport has been criticized for its lack of convenience, modern amenities, sustainability as well as its un-welcoming aesthetic and less-than-satisfactory safety standards. The Kansas City Business Journal reported in 2016 that satisfaction with the airport was ranked among the worst in the world.
For an international airport, KCI’s direct flight options are limited, offering only a few nonstop routes to Canada and Mexico. The airport offers nonstop flights to 51 cities throughout the United States. Luckily for Kansas City’s aspirations to snag Amazon, one of those locales is Seattle, which is where Amazon is now headquartered.
The proposed single terminal airport plan is set for a city-wide vote on Nov. 7. Designed by Edgemoor Infrastructure, the design features a two-story fountain and a sleek aesthetic. The $1.3 billion project is expected to feature two concourses with 35 gates. Passenger arrivals and departures would be on separate levels.
While city leaders are optimistic the measure will pass, the project is already facing headwinds from voters.
Pro: Growing tech workforce
Kansas City’s tech workforce is growing faster than in most big cities, including New York City, Chicago, San Diego and others, according to CBRE’s annual tech talent report.
The report showed that between 2011 and 2016, Kansas City’s tech workforce grew 39 percent, adding about 15,000 new tech staffers in the five-year window. That growth rate ranks Kansas City as No. 16 out of 50 cities in the United States and Canada.
Kansas City’s tech industry is directly responsible for 93,880 jobs, according to a report by the KC Tech Council.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Ryan Weber, president of the KC Tech Council, told Startland in May. “In general, we know there’s roughly 1 million workers in Kansas City, and if roughly 100,000 of them are working in tech you can round those numbers to say that almost 1 in 10 Kansas Citians directly contribute to the tech industry — that’s pretty huge.”
Con: Tech talent pipeline
Although Kansas City’s reputation as a tech hub is growing, it seems to be developing faster than what its talent pipeline can keep up with.
The KC Tech Council report showed that at the end of 2016 there were 4,699 open tech jobs in the Kansas City area. Weber said that a labor shortage is holding Kansas and Missouri back, recommending a shift in education to fill the gap.
“The most immediate thing that policymakers could do is to change the education policy to move computer science to be not an elective but required learning,” Weber told Startland in May. “Until we do that, we are not a player. We are so far behind in that regard.”
Pro: Google Fiber and gigabit competition
In 2011, Google Fiber selected Kansas City, Kansas, as the first city to built out its high-speed, gigabit internet network.
Since its launch, the Internet service provider has established its services in Kansas City, Missouri, Olathe, Kansas and more than 15 other Kansas City area suburbs. The first Google Fiber neighborhood, near West Plaza, spurred the entrepreneurial community that is now the Kansas City Startup Village.
Google Fiber has also worked closely with Literacy KC, Connecting for Good and Surplus Exchange to provide 1,051 Kansas City public housing units and 275 public buildings with free Internet access, as well as more than 36,000 digital training hours since 2012.
Perhaps more importantly that Google Fiber’s arrival is that its presence has spurred significant competition among gigabit internet providers. AT&T, Comcast and Spectrum are among the other providers jockeying for market share in Kansas City.
Con: Diversity and multiculturalism in business
In August, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce released a diversity and inclusion report, which found several areas of improvement for the metro.
For about 40 percent of Kansas City companies, only 25 percent of senior management teams and boards consist of diverse individuals, according to the chamber report. Another 25 percent of companies said that less than 50 percent of their leadership is diverse.
Diversity leaders said that Kansas Citians are more likely to pay lip service to minorities than to take proactive action.
Pro: Low cost of living
Kansas City’s cost of living is below the national average, mostly because of housing costs.
The mayor emphasized this affordability in one of his Amazon reviews.
“I live in beautiful Kansas City where the average home price is just $122K, so I know luxe living doesn’t have to cost a ton,” James wrote in the review of a set of windchimes. “I’ll tell you, when I’m sitting out in the backyard of my reasonably priced home in a safe neighborhood with great schools and these chimes start to tinkle, it feels like the whole world is singing just for me.”
Con: Challenge with thinking big
In its request for proposal, Amazon said it was looking for communities that think big and creatively.
While it’s demonstrated dreaming big in many instances, Kansas City has failed to capitalize on a handful of transformative projects that could’ve grown its momentum.
In 2016, BNIM abandoned its plans to build a new headquarters project at 1640 Baltimore at the Crossroads Arts District, because of a small set of angry petitioners. The architecture and design firm BNIM claims that the project aimed to leverage smart city momentum and collaborate with Kansas City Public Schools, benefiting the entire city.
In 2020, developers plan to complete an 800-room Kansas City Convention Center Hotel, the first convention hotel built in the area since 1985. Although the convention hotel is approved to move forward, it too was met with resistance.
A group that calls itself Citizens for Responsible Government delivered more than 200 petition signatures, aiming to spur a referendum process.
Since its launch in 2016, Kansas City’s streetcar has carried a total of more than 3 million passengers along its 2.2-mile line with a daily average ridership of 6,800 people, according to the Kansas City Streetcar Authority. Despite the popularity, Kansas City voters have pushed back on expansion efforts.
If Kansas City wants to progress, it needs to be able to embrace a broader, long-term vision and that requires dreaming big.
Pro: A vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem
About five years ago, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and Mayor James kicked off an ambitious challenge for KC to become the most entrepreneurial city in America. The goal has catalyzed excitement and a plethora of programs and organizations supporting innovators, including incubators, accelerators and even this news site.
In addition to being home to the Kauffman Foundation, Kansas City was the first city to launch the national 1 Million Cups forum, which is now located in more than 140 U.S. cities.
The coworking industry is also booming in Kansas City, which leaders say has cultivated a more-connected community. The metro is home to what some dub the “world’s largest” coworking space at 160,000 square feet, Plexpod Westport Commons. This summer, international coworking firm WeWork launched a Kansas City location in the Crossroads Arts District.
In June, Kansas City played host to the largest ever meeting of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders, via the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s first annual ESHIP Summit.
Bringing in more than 400 ecosystem builders from around the world, the three-day summit’s mission was to explore a new model of economic development with a focus on entrepreneurial communities. Kansas City leaders said the metro left an impression on outsiders, touting the City of Fountains as steps ahead in the entrepreneurial ecosystem thought leadership.
Do you have more pros or cons for Amazon to select Kansas City for its HQ2? Share them in the comments below.