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Opinion Forget it, Canada. We’re not winning the Amazon lottery

Mayor John Tory thinks Toronto would be the perfect place for it. Not so fast, says Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, his city has it all over any competitor in the country. But then, Mayor Naheed Nenshi feels the same way about Calgary, and Mayor Don Iveson, about his kingdom in Edmonton.

What is it they all covet so badly? The winning lottery ticket of urban investment: Amazon's proposed second headquarters.

You may have heard that the world's largest Internet retailer has plans to build a "full second" head office somewhere in North America. The company is talking about a $5-billion (U.S.) investment and 50,000 jobs that will pay an average of $100,000. It will require more than eight-million square feet of office space.

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Related: GTA leaders to make joint bid for new Amazon headquarters

You don't need to be Einstein to see how transformational a project of this magnitude could be for a metropolitan area. Amazon's operation in Seattle is so big it consumes nearly an entire neighbourhood; one with a vibrant ecosystem of services and amenities aimed at Amazon employees. The company has become such a behemoth, it has been blamed for driving up the cost of housing in Seattle.

You can see why many cities, especially ones that are economically stagnant, are drooling at the prospect of having Amazon owner Jeff Bezos come to town to cut the ribbon on such phantasmagorical enterprise.

The problem is most of the cities dreaming about sharing its cafés with Amazon's techies are, for the most part, doing just that: dreaming. That would include most, if not all, of the Canadian cities who plan to file a bid.

Jeff Bezos isn't stupid. He likely already has two or three cities in mind for the venture. The cities that would meet important prerequisites the company is insisting on – proximity to a major transportation hub that includes an airport with direct flights to Seattle; an educated work force to draw upon; a metropolitan population of one-million plus – are already known to Amazon's head honchos. One intangible will ultimately swing the deal: incentives.

There are lots of North American cities with a major airport and direct flights to Seattle. But there aren't as many willing to fork over hundreds of millions, possibly billions in inducements. That's what Mr. Bezos wants. And that's what at least a few jurisdictions are likely willing to put up to land what civic leaders regard as a goose that will lay golden eggs for years to come.

When it comes to subsidies, Canadian cities are usually no match for their U.S. counterparts. Wisconsin just offered Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn $3-billion in enticements to set up a crystal-display factory there. Washington State has given Boeing billions in contentious tax breaks to build its planes in Seattle. Texas is renowned for breaks to lure big business. And on it goes.

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Some will argue the Canadian dollar serves as an incentive. Maybe at the moment. Still, cities such as Toronto and Vancouver are among the most expensive in the world in which to live. Also, Amazon is insisting that any site be serviced by public transit. What if it's not? Are people living in a major Canadian city going to be happy to see their tax dollars used to build public infrastructure to meet the needs of a single company? Not a chance.

Mr. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, is also in the crosshairs of U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has called the Post, which has been highly critical of him, a "lobbyist weapon" for Amazon. I can picture the nationalistic rage the President would stir up if Mr. Bezos took 50,000 jobs to another country. I can't imagine Amazon risking the backlash.

No, I don't see the company building its HQ2 in Canada, and maybe that's not a bad thing. It seems some people in the South Lake Union district of Seattle, where Amazon has established its sprawling campus, have had it with the insufferable attitudes possessed by many of the young whiz kids toiling for the company.

Someone recently went to the trouble of distributing a flyer around the Amazon neighbourhood that attempted to deflate some egos. Among the questions it asked Mr. Bezos's employees: "Do you not realize that you are working for an updated version of Sears and Roebuck …?"

If Mr. Bezos really wants to make his mark, he'll locate his headquarters somewhere it could have an extraordinary impact, some place that desperately needs a break – a city such as Detroit.

It may not have Seattle's coffee shops but the pizza is way better.

Editor’s note: A Friday column on Amazon incorrectly said that Wisconsin offered a Chinese manufacturer Foxconn enticements to set up a factory. In fact, the company is Taiwanese-based.
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