An Open Letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos About Why Kentuckiana Should be the Second Amazon HQ
It was announced in early September that retail and entertainment GIANT Amazon is looking for a place to build their second headquarters. Big cities are pretty much falling all over themselves to catch the executives' eyes. There have even been reports that a giant cactus from Tuscon, Arizona, is trying to make its way to the Amazon corner office as a gesture of goodwill and local governments are organizing war rooms full of volunteers planning and scheming to make their city seem as Amazon-friendly as possible.
So, let's back up here. You might be asking, what are the criteria for Amazon to consider an area and is Kentucky/Indiana even a candidate? As it stands... sadly, not really. Part of the requirements are: the place must have a million people, a diverse population, good schools and post-secondary education, an international airport, and a flexible governing body is a must.
But, as the eternal optimist, I like to think of the positive and try to imagine why Amazon SHOULD consider the Midwest - and specifically, this region.
I thought I'd go ahead and address Amazon directly. I'm not part of the local government or really anyone of importance. Just someone who wants to make a change for the better... So, here goes.
Dear Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos:
I read in a recent interview with fastcompany.com, you talked about your strategy in regards to the continuous evolution of Amazon and the places the company considers when planning expansion. And you said:
“I think neighborhoods, cities, and towns that have evolved are more interesting and delightful than ones that have been carefully top-down planned. There’s just something very human about them," he says.
As someone who is from the Ohio River Valley and someone who has learned about, read about, wrote about and consumed Kentucky/Indiana all my life, I want to put a bug in your ear about this place -- which you probably aren't considering... yet.
So, let's start with that word "evolution"...What is the evolution of the Ohio River Valley all the way through the economically depleted Eastern Kentucky area? As we all know, Kentucky has been feeling the economic blow of coal mining automation and environment-friendly initiatives since the Eighties. Employment in Kentucky coal stands roughly where it did back in 1898. Now, remember, the first Ford Model-T didn't roll off the factory line until October of 1908. So, there were more people transporting coal in a horse-and-buggy than there are now. Many of those former employees are losing their homes because of their loss of a $60-$70,000 income and small towns across the state are pretty much disappearing. How do you replace that income? Hmmm... that's the question we are all asking ourselves and it was a huge topic of political turmoil in the last election.
Coal mining is only a fraction of the state's overall unemployment rate. Though coal mining is steadily declining, the unemployment rate of Kentucky has drastically improved since 2009-2010. But, it is still a full percentage point higher than the national average. In August 2017, 111,995 Kentuckians were claiming unemployment benefits or 5.4% of the population. Indiana ranks lower than the national average at 3.5% or 116,710 out-of-work Hoosiers. And though federal and state governments have targeted parts of Kentucky (especially Eastern Kentucky) as zones that need the most financial help, we all know government assistance alone can't fix the problem. Strong primary and secondary education and a large influx of good paying jobs will have to foster the growth. <Wink, wink!> They don't need charity, they need opportunities.
As sad as our plight might be, we still don't meet the criteria for what Amazon has expressed that they need for a second headquarters. And those are real needs for your company to be successful at delivering on what your customers have come to expect. I mean, I like saying, "I absolutely NEED a robot vacuum at my house in 48 hours or less," with a promise of that fulfillment. I AM your target customer.
Now, I certainly don't pretend to be an urban planner or even dangerously knowledgeable about all the factors being considered. But here's what I know about us and why any large business, especially Amazon, should at least give this area a second glance...
I go back to your own words... “I think neighborhoods, cities, and towns that have evolved are more interesting and delightful than ones that have been carefully top-down planned. There’s just something very human about them."
When you look back at the development of the Ohio River Valley through to Appalachia, at one time, we were a major hub of development and transportation. Our region evolved on the backs of settlers and has continued to change and grow. But, we also cling to the values which we hold dear. Blood, sweat, and tears don't come easy and a life built on tradition and hard work really isn't for everyone.
Unfortunately, as with anything, times and standards change. Change is hard - especially for steadfast Midwesterners who are so rooted in tradition. But, perhaps, Amazon and other companies should look at this stubbornness and hard-working tradition as a good thing. People who you already know will sacrifice life and limb to spend hours on end in a dark, dismal mine to provide a good life for their family kind of seem like an ideal employee. And these people certainly aren't stupid - they just haven't been afforded the educational opportunities to grow. Software startup, Bit Source employs eleven former coal miners in software coding. When they initially set out to find candidates to employ, they received 950 applications in Pikeville, KY. Nine-hundred and fifty people in a tiny, rural area welcomed the opportunity to learn something totally out of their comfort zone. Let that sink in.
When you break down statistics in healthcare, opportunity, education, infrastructure, economy, crime rate, and government responsibility, Indiana ranks significantly higher than Kentucky. But, neither state's average is in the bottom 20%. Both states hover in the middle. We certainly aren't destitute but we could use a dynamic change. We have a workforce who is willing and able to make significant strides in the growth of a company. We have a need for growth in areas of education, infrastructure, and opportunity. This region is full of people who are desperate for those changes.
So, the Ohio River Valley, or even Eastern Kentucky might not be the perfectly planned out urban landscape. We might not be the ideal ready-made Amazon hub. And, we surely aren't sending you bottles of bourbon, barrels of corn, racehorses, and Larry Bird to do our bidding. But, airports can be built, education improved upon, and we all know if you build it, they will come.
So, what can we offer you, Amazon? In the end, probably not what you need. You'll probably pick Tuscon because they have amazing cacti or Canada because they offer some spectacular free healthcare and are just so darn nice! But, we are a group of "very human" humans who are hard-working, care deeply about the past, present, and future, and are ready for great things... Maybe that will be more than enough!
A Girl Who Grew Up in a Kentuckiana Town