Op Ed

Why Amazon Should Pick Milwaukee

Its second headquarters would have 50,000 jobs. Milwaukee would be an ideal location.

By - Sep 8th, 2017 12:58 pm
Potential Tower Site for Amazon. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Potential Tower Site for Amazon. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Earlier today Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company was looking to build a second North American headquarters on par with its headquarters in Seattle where the housing and talent markets are saturated. The new headquarters may provide up to 50,000 corporate office jobs. With a distribution center 30 minutes to the south in Kenosha, why not build in Milwaukee?

The Case for Milwaukee

It has been a topic of political discourse that Wisconsin graduates tend to leave the state. Amazon could provide incentive to keep more students here. Milwaukee has the two large universities of Marquette and UW-Milwaukee, the latter which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella earned his Master’s Degree.

Furthermore, Milwaukee is a short drive east of UW-Madison, which is particularly strong in producing information technology graduates. Epic Systems is not the only company ideally situated to make use of Madison’s graduates: Google, Microsoft, and HP have satellite offices there. There is also the potential to recruit graduates from Chicagoland’s universities as it’s a relatively short drive away.

Speaking of Chicago, having Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Milwaukee would have the advantage of proximity to O’Hare in addition to Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. However, Milwaukee has the added advantage of having a lower cost of living and lower taxes.

In addition to proximity to Chicago, Milwaukee is traditionally dense and urban and has most of the amenities one would expect from a large city. Examples include our professional baseball and basketball teams, Summerfest and multiple other concert and performing venues, the Milwaukee County Zoo, and the museums. Lest we not forget that Milwaukee is also situated with an extensive park system and beautiful views of Lake Michigan.

In fact, the land southwest of Clybourn Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive, made available from the Lakefront Gateway Project, may be the perfect spot to build a towering headquarters with beautiful views of both the lake and the rest of the city. The new tower would complement the newly completed Northwestern Mutual building as well as The Couture and US Bank towers.

On Clybourn the headquarters would have easy access to the interstate and mass transit and a short drive to the airport. Elsewise, there is a large parcel of vacant land south of Michigan Street between 7th and 8th Streets as well as a sizable parcel in the Historic Third Ward owned by the Italian Community Center which is presently used for commuter and festival parking.

While Northwestern Mutual employed approximately 5,900 people on both its Milwaukee and Franklin campuses its new tower has more than a million square feet of office space. Comparatively, according to Forbes, Amazon’s Seattle headquarters employs 40,000 and has over 8 million square feet of office space across the city. Judging by news reports, the new headquarters would employ the same or greater. Amazon could have a new headquarters and fill much vacant office space in the city.

Milwaukee has numerous advantages which could make it a candidate for Amazon’s headquarters. Were Amazon to come to Milwaukee, it would help diversify the city and metropolitan area’s economy to complement strengths in manufacturing and finance, help retain Wisconsin graduates, and lead to significant investment in the downtown, the area housing stock, and Mitchell International airport. Of course, there would also be increased demand for service and other jobs to support Amazon’s new employees.

If city and state officials can devise a reasonable offer for Amazon’s second headquarters, Milwaukee has little to lose and potentially much to gain.

Ken Smith is a Milwaukee native and graduate student at UW-Madison. He studies in the LaFollette School of Public Affairs and Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics, Real Estate

30 thoughts on “Op Ed: Why Amazon Should Pick Milwaukee”

  1. Put it on the Solvay Coke brown field in Walker’s Point that WE Energies is restoring and run the streetcar past it into Bay View to the airport.

  2. IzzyDidIt says:

    The tract of land on Michigan is owned by MU and they already have plans for another sports wellness & training facility there that will cover the entire site. But there are plenty of other options, including demolishing or renovating the dated office buildings that are underused downtown. There are some massive concrete behemoths I wouldn’t mind seeing facing the wrecking ball. I always say, just cuz a building is old, doesn’t mean its historic. But I digress, it would be great to land Amazon, albeit a longshot, but why not swing for the fences on this one. If we could put together the ridiculous Foxconn package, why wouldnt we also do the same for Amazon, a much more trusted/reliable company that is local to North America? I think Milwaukee does have several key assets to tout and hopefully the City does a good job communicating and demonstrating that in their proposal. We have all the ingredients, we just have to figure out how to put them all together to make some really appetizing.

    P.S. I like the idea of putting them in the Inner Harbor and extending the Streetcar south through WP and Bayview (which is already intended in a future phase), directly to a stop attached to the airport, not a few blocks away from the terminal like the current Amtrak stop. It would give a much better first impression to visitors to have connected rail option to enter the city.

  3. Jerad says:

    Instead of mentioning land that’s already owned by Marquette for the planned athletics facility, why not mentioned all the vacant lots between Clybourn and Michigan, from Van Buren all the way to 2nd?

  4. MKEbooster says:

    How about starting with the post office building on St . Paul and then head south along the river from there?

  5. Don hernandez says:

    It shouldnt or where is amazon getting employees from i have been looking for people for a month so far i got 1 that last me 4 days pay $15 per hour and nothing so where is amazon getting 50000 employees so i can look for some too

  6. NoGo says:

    Ken Smith – How much do you think Barrett and the democrats can charge Amazon to come to Milwaukee?? Maybe as an incentive democrats could put in some billionaire surcharge tax to get Bezos to move to Madison. I find this hilarious. Yeah sure Amazon is going to come to Milwaukee. Somebody tell all the lefty groups like that la frontera to get their pickets ready to unionize the place. What a joke. Democrats chase businesses AWAY. Business is a necessary evil you tax to fund socialism. Is that barretts pitch to Bezos??

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    Well it cost a rich guy $50,000 to get Walker and Republicans to throw $4 million at a airport. http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/2017/09/08/lawmakers-add-4-million-tiny-wisconsin-airport-near-golf-course/647032001/

    Is that hilarious too?

  8. NoGo says:

    Vincent – Is Nancy Pelosi barred from landing her government Gulf stream V?? I guess to you democrats are as pure as the driven snow and all virgins.

  9. NoGo says:

    I guess Peter Barca serves as an example of what happens to anyone who supports any private sector job creation in Wisconsin as long as Walker is governor. Foxconn wouldn’t even consider Wisconsin under democrats but lets pretend democrats aren’t anti business and would support Foxconn subsidies to get Amazon. Yeah right (raise fist in air).

  10. Johnny says:

    I agree with NoGo. Look what the unions have done to our ineffectual police and foodie firemen.

  11. MidnightSon says:

    I really doubt that Milwaukee will be taken seriously among most other bids for Amazon’s HQ2. Not that I wouldn’t love for Milwaukee to make this happen, but I simply think there are too many other locations with better chances based on what they already have in place. (public transit, major international airport, culture of diversity, tech workforce, breadth of strong higher ed, etc.) Frankly, among the Great lakes cities, I think Detroit has a better chance. Its a dark horse, but viable.

    This decision will be made based on several complexities. For example, Canadian cities may have a leg up–according to a Business Journals article–because the country’s single-payer health system means companies don’t have to contribute, and its immigration policy is on a more friendly track, especially regarding H1-B visa holders. And, of course, there is the “incentives package.”

    My take is that the only way Milwaukee stands a chance is if it (and the state) can put together a competitive incentives package and then skillfully weave and express a compelling story about what “can be.” It’s a story that would have to be told by every billionaire and top business leader in the region.

    What Milwaukee does have going for it is its affordability; current forward trajectory (at least on the business-downtown front); all coupled with the potential attractiveness of Amazon being a big fish in a small pond. With 50,000 employees, it would run the show in Milwaukee like no other company. Milwaukee, despite its many other employers, would become a company town, with Amazon wielding a lot of power, for better or for worse. Milwaukee’s sales pitch would have to explain not only the advantages of “being close to Chicago” while also explaining “why not Chicago.” It could be significantly boosted by rock solid commitments from Johnson Controls, Foxconn, Fiserv, and others.

  12. kLM747 says:

    Poor infrastructure in this area dooms Milwaukee’s chances. I would say that if the KRM line had been built as well as the high speed rail between Chicago and Madison then I would be more confident of our chances but of course our esteemed Scott Walker and his cronies didn’t realize the importance of these projects or provide support for them.

  13. Kevin says:

    The harbor district is 500 acres of mostly greenfield space in a ridiculously urban setting. it’s absolutely unheard of to have 100+ contiguous greenfield acres in a city. i think that that would be a great place to build. or get rid of all of the stupid surface lots in/around the third ward.

  14. Vincent Hanna says:

    Ha that’s funny as it isn’t even a defense and Pelosi isn’t an elected official in the state of Wisconsin. Right-wing lunacy at its finest.

    I agree Midnight Son. I heard an economist say that Amazon could be attracted to a smaller big city because it could pay less wages while still commanding pretty huge tax incentives. But Milwaukee is a long shot.

  15. Vincent Hanna says:

    Also too much brain drain for Amazon too right? We have too many grads leaving Milwaukee. That’s something they’d be aware of and it will prevent us from having a real chance.

    For what it’s worth, this piece looks at what Amazon is looking for and what cities can realistically provide it. He says the options are: Toronto, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Dallas or Denver. http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/ct-amazons-new-headquarters-contenders-20170908-story.html

  16. eagleon says:

    Nah. We need another stadium.

  17. Sue says:

    Milwaukee has a lot going for it, but one item in particular will kill the deal for us: transit. We don’t have a cooperative regional transit system and public transportation in general has been under attack for awhile. Unfortunately we’re not a true metro area; we are a city surrounded by suburbs.

  18. mkwagner says:

    What does Milwaukee have to offer Amazon? It doesn’t have the infrastructure that attracts millennial knowledge workers to the area things like good public transit, investment in good public schools, vibrant diverse economy, strong neighborhoods, good safety net. The one thing not on the list is low taxes. A more likely site is the Twin Cities, which has everything Milwaukee has plus good public transit, public schools, vibrant diverse economy, etc. Of course, the top site being considered is Toronto, which can offer all that the Twin Cities can offer plus public provided health care among other considerations.

  19. The state and Republican legislators hate Milwaukee. If they could throw $3 billion for alleged factory jobs, something I seriously doubt will happen, they could certainly find a few billion more. LOL.

  20. Tom D says:

    Another thing in Toronto’s favor is that Trump ended DACA. Ending DACA will force Amazon to replace legal employees who, until now, have been protected by DACA. By opening a new HQ outside the US, Amazon can protect those employees simply by transferring them to that new HQ.

    How many employees are affected? Amazon says “at least 9”, but I suspect the actual number is far higher. Apple, who has fewer employees than Amazon, has already identified at least 250 of its employees as affected by Trump’s DACA action.

    If just one or two such employees hold important positions (and are considered irreplaceable), that alone might well be enough to tilt the scales toward a new HQ outside the US (not just for Amazon, but for many technology companies).

  21. Bill Bo says:

    The GOP right wing hacks are living in the past. Cities need to attract people, escpecially young ones, if they want to at least stop population drain. This isn’t rocket science. Young college grads want decent public transit. That means rail. They want vibrant neighborhoods that don’t empty out after 5pm. The GOP would rather bulldoze their downtowns and build parking lots than provide an extensive rail system that includes suburban commuter rail. They also would rather build interstates that destroy neighborhoods and waterfronts so those drivers can get out of the city as fast as possible.
    I’m not a betting man but I’d say amazon will choose a city that isn’t being ruined by leave it to beaver types from the 1960s.

  22. Skip says:

    NoGo, what are you talking about? Dane County, full of Democrats, leads Wisconsin in private sector job growth.

    Private sector job growth, Mar 2016- Mar 2017
    Dane County +4,606
    Waukesha Co. +3,844
    Kenosha Co. +2,316
    Brown County +1,785
    Outagamie Co. +1,374
    Winnebago Co. +1,153
    REST OF WIS. +12,519


  23. Write amazonhq2@amazon.com if you have a compelling argument for why they should pick Milwaukee. As for the nay sayers and the left-right arguments … Seattle is not all that different from Milwaukee in politics and temperament. Cut the self-defeating BS and pull together for bringing high paying jobs to Milwaukee. Bezos is not an idiot and will probably reject those cities willing to whore themselves out at the expense of their own capacity to build infrastructure and educational institutions.

    Make a compelling argument for here … like … plentiful fresh water, no earthquakes, no volcanoes, no rising sea water, less extream heat … a great place to build a future safe from the major effects of global warming. Education and infrastructure are easy to fix compared to the possible disasters near a major fault line, a range of volcanoes, or the sea coasts.

  24. TransitRider says:

    The NY Times website had an interesting opinion piece analyzing all the possible US locations (including Milwaukee) for Amazon’s HQ2 and concluded that Denver was the most likely US location. FWIW, this article totally ignored Canadian possibilities like Toronto.


    The article used a series of criteria listed by Amazon (job growth, labor pool size, quality of life, transportation, etc) and came up with Denver. I happened to have visited Denver a few weeks ago, and Denver is a very impressive place.

    Denver has great transit (including America’s fastest growing rail transit system), America’s 5th largest airport (connected to downtown by trains running every 15 minutes), lots of available land, a booming downtown filled with millennials, and lots of recreation possibilities (not to mention legal recreational marijuana). Denver also has a new Amazon distribution center (bigger than Kenosha’s).

    Amazon has always valued rail transit. In Seattle, they donated millions to beef up the streetcar service past their headquarters.

  25. MidnightSon says:

    Thanks, TransitRider. I saw the NYT piece, too, and it points to the reality of the situation. Of the five major criteria Amazon indicated in its RFP, the only one that puts Milwaukee on the map is metro population above 1 million. It drops off the map when considering any of the other criteria: strong job growth, the right labor pool, high quality of life, and getting workers can get around town and out of it easily (mass transit and airport).

    Unless Amazon decides to ignore all of these, Milwaukee is not in the running. If we’re limited to the four metro areas that the Times is left with (Portland, Denver, D.C. Area and Boston), my bet is on the D.C. Area, and specifically Baltimore. Beyond the other criteria, Bezos owns the Washington Post and Baltimore has easy access to airports and talent, and with a much lower cost of living to boot. Baltimore would become Amazon’s next company town.

    If not Baltimore, then I think it will be Denver. that’s unless Boston can cough up the incentives.

  26. FoxconnLove says:

    Of course Amazon should pick Wisconsin!

    Want a few billion in tax credits? No problem!
    Want to circumvent environmental rules? You betcha.
    Want to skip our permitting process? You don’t need no permits.
    Someone sue you? We’ll skip the usual process, we’ve got your back.
    Want to dump anything in our waterways? Go for it.

    Wisconsin can be 100% your bitch, Amazon. We’re open for your business.

  27. Foxconn is a Trump/Walker buggery performed on the Wisconsin taxpayers purely for political theatrics. Wisconsin Republicans are not going to bend over to get Amazon to locate to Milwaukee because: it would benefit Milwaukee, it would provide exactly the types of jobs we need for the 21st century, and because Bezos seems to like streetcars and high-speed rail.

    It is stupid and self-defeating to make petty trolling wisecracks about trying to attract a significant and potentially beneficial business to Milwaukee. We could pull our collective heads out of the dark places they in are and make a united effort to attract Amazon and negotiate an honest and good deal for both Milwaukee and Amazon, or we can be childish trolls intent on shooting down what can be a significantly good thing for Milwaukee to satisfy our snarky narcissism.

    The comment threads on this page seem to disappointingly indicate the latter.

  28. FoxconnLove says:

    Right, right, Joe. Unfortunately, the shoe fits, so I disagree it’s self-defeating.

    Milwaukee doesn’t have a chance in hell to capture Amazon on its merits. We’re not in the same league as the other cities that are being mentioned. Don’t delude yourself it is, full stop.

    The best thing the region has going for it is a political structure that will bend over backwards, spend billions of taxpayer dough, and capitulate 110% to all demands a corporation might desire. THAT’s a differentiator and we might as well use it to our advantage.

  29. Mr. Magic says:

    No go, you really ruin the discussion when you angrily spout platitudes and exaggerated stereotypes about Milwaukee politicians. Can you please keep it focused about ideas that would help us get Amazon that aren’t based on your tiny world view? Please and thank you.

  30. Bill says:

    There is no chance that Milwaukee would be seriously considered as a second headquarters for a major tech company. It simply doesn’t offer the talent pool that they would need. It has a secondary airport that requires transfers to get to too many destinations. It doesn’t have any record of embracing or supporting the technology industry, while for decades now other cities and states have and seen strong growth in the sector. It has one of the lowest job growth rates in the country. It has seen many metropolitan areas outgrow it to the point that it is hardly considered a major city outside of Milwaukee. People are quick to call the redevelopment of downtown apartments and the few relocations of local companies to downtown evidence of a “boom town” period, but the lack of new high growth companies and statistics lagging most peer cities tells otherwise. And this is coming from someone who really likes Milwaukee. As far as it being disqualified for lack of transit and diversity, Seattle and Austin are hardly mass transit heavens, and Austin is actually a very sprawling metropolitan area. Milwaukee has diversity, but not necessarily the diversity that these companies or their employees look for. Portland is a tech center, but also perhaps the whitest large city in the U.S. And what about taxes? Tech companies operate and flourish in both low and very high tax states. So my guess is that they will definitely go for an area that already has a very strong tech sector, that has the “buzz” surrounding it to attract those who work in the industry or who would face transfer, and will cough up the incentives. It won’t be Milwaukee, Louisville, Buffalo, etc. that aren’t even on their radar.

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