Does our city have a shot at landing Amazon’s HQ2? Eh, maybe.
Bringing Amazon to Houston almost certainly will be a heavy lift. The pursuit of the company that revolutionized the retail industry has highlighted both the potential and shortcomings of the local technology sector, made up of scattered groups of engineers in the energy, medical and space industries, which account for many of the city’s major innovations, but have yet to break out of their silos to create the kind of culture and buzz that animate tech centers such as Silicon Valley, Austin or Amazon’s hometown of Seattle.
But economic development officials say that regardless of outcome, the bid may well become the catalyst for the kind of innovation ecosystem that pushes the region and its economy into new directions to underpin its long-term prosperity.
“Amazon is a foil for thinking about where you’re trying to take a city,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which is leading a team of developers, academics, Texas Medical Center executives and real estate brokers juggling a high-stakes bidding war and Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.
Houston likely has a tough sell ahead of it. The local startup scene has grown in recent years, but has so far failed to attract the sort of venture capital activity concentrated in Austin and other tech-focused cities. Skeptics point to the city’s consistent failure to develop projects that would substantially expand its technological base and attract major firms such as Microsoft, Google or Dell, all of which have operations in Austin.
Most recently, the University of Texas system’s ambitious plan to transform roughly 300 acres of land near the Medical Center into a cutting-edge data science center failed in the face of intense opposition from University of Houston leaders and state lawmakers. Proponents of the deal blamed political sparring for scuttling a deal that could elevated the city’s chance of developing a more robust technology sector.
“That type of nonsense has to stop,” said Houston developer David Wolff, chairman and president of Wolff Companies. “You have to have the institutions working together.”
But local leaders argue that the city’s growing number of software engineers and computer programmers could complement Amazon’s ambitions as it expands its data science capabilities outside of retail and entertainment. In addition, city officials in recent years have made a push to elevate local startups and draw venture capital investors. Station Houston, a downtown startup incubator and co-working space, has attracted more than 260 member companies since it opened this spring.
The city’s most prominent universities have bolstered their technology programs in recent years to include data science and analytics. The University of Houston-Downtown offers a master’s degree in data analytics, and Rice University has partnered with IBM to develop robotics.
“We are still evolving, and we can grow and design a city with the help of an Amazon to help customize our city to their particular needs, which many other cities cannot do,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in an interview. “We are just now beginning to focus on startups, technology, innovation in a very integrated sense.”
Just between you and me, I don’t think Houston’s odds are very good here, and I won’t be terribly grieved if we are not the chosen city. I think we’d have to give them a pretty substantive
bribe incentive package to come here, and I have a hard time with that. (Turns out I’m not the only one who isn’t bullish on our fair city’s chances.) If we’re going to have a broader discussion about making the city more amenable to startups, or to address the infrastructure and transit demands Amazon is making, I’m all in. But let’s leave it at that. Swamplot has more.