Charlotte should try to land Amazon, but not at any cost

The Observer editorial board

A Panthers fan shows his support for Amazon bringing a headquarters to Charlotte.
A Panthers fan shows his support for Amazon bringing a headquarters to Charlotte. AP

We hate to put any kind of damper on the Amazon party, given how fun the Ric Flair GIFs on Twitter are and how giddy we get over visions of light rail to the River District. But with Thursday being the deadline for cities to submit their bids to be home to Amazon’s second headquarters, let’s take a breath and think about what we’re willing to give to land it and what it might mean if we do.

No doubt, this is the economic development trophy of a lifetime. The online retail giant promises a $5 billion investment, along with up to 50,000 full-time jobs averaging annual total compensation over $100,000. Since 2010, Amazon says it has directly invested $30 billion into Seattle through its headquarters there, and that that has pumped an additional $38 billion into the economy.

Even a fraction of that could be transformational should Amazon choose Charlotte. The company would quickly become the city’s largest employer. Such an infusion of jobs and investment would attract other businesses and their jobs and taxes. It would also give Charlotte more of the status it long craved and continue to diversify our economy into the tech sector.

All of that makes Amazon worth pursuing. But how far should taxpayers be willing to go to win the prize? Tax incentives have been escalating for years, and Amazon might be able to command the biggest bounty yet. The winning bid could easily be in the billions of dollars. New Jersey is submitting a package worth $7 billion.

At some point far below that, the cost is not worth the benefit, and those dollars would be better spent investing in transportation, education and public safety.

Before Charlotte gets too deep into its daydreaming about Amazon, we need to be clear-eyed about growth and how we face the challenges that come with it. We haven’t always been good about that – as people stuck in traffic in various parts of the city each day can affirm.

Including families, Amazon would bring perhaps 150,000 more of those people, and maybe 100,000 more of those cars. It would put demands on all kinds of public services, from police to garbage to schools.

Yes, it would be transformational, and we should welcome the kind of benefits it would bring. But Charlotte needs to be better about growth, about planning for it and staying with those plans. We need to be more intentional, because daydreams can quickly become nightmares when you don’t prepare for all aspects of a project.

That is not to suggest Charlotte should reject economic growth due to the attendant costs. But it means the city and state should recognize the pressures that would come from landing it. Even without Amazon, our transit system is underfunded, we face $2 billion in school constructions needs and we wrestle to provide affordable housing. We don’t even have a permanent city planning director.

It’s fine to dream big on Amazon. We buy a lottery ticket occasionally, too. But remember: While it’s fun to imagine what to do with the potential riches, many lottery winners end up broke.