Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is Amazon's slight the fault of City Hall?

In the great round of Baltimore introspection and navelgazing after Amazon kicked charm city off its shortlist while keeping smaller burgs such as Nashville, Pittsburgh and Columbus and Raleigh  on, Baltimore Brew writer Gerald Neily had probably the most astute observation in his article "Kevin Plank’s vision wasn’t big enough for Amazon". One town may not be big enough for Bezos and Plank he quipped, explaining that Bezos' ego wouldn't settle with a vision already fleshed out by Kevin Plan's ego.
Does the Amazon debate cover up Baltimore's real problems
or does it shed a light on them? (BBJ illustration)
Unfortunately, he didn't leave it with this creative explanation but used the occasion to fire off an entire battery of jibes including deriding the fact that Baltimore even tried to enter the race. He mocks the Mayor and the head of BMC for first being "giddy" about applying and then stating the application wasn't their idea, the SUN for saying that Port Covington's shovel-ready development was unique in America, Under Armour itself for having shed so much of its stock value, and the very idea of promoting a particular site at all. His juxtaposition of Amazon's innovation ("Neily: Amazon is a brand of revolutionary ideas and soaring expectations") with Baltimore's having become a city where last year’s “game changer” is always being crowded out by this year’s sure-fire “winner” is clever. It is  fun, how Neily contrasts Amazon's online shopping approach with former mayors' failed idea of big box retail on the Port Covington site. But Neily doesn't leave the topic before landing his coup de grace, a knock of "City Hall" as the core reason why Amazon eliminated Baltimore.
For several decades, the problem has been how to slice a pie that’s been squeezed into a shapeless bun by the constricted view of City Hall and its backers.
To ensure that even the dimmest reader would get the point, Neily adds for good measure:
There is, in fact, plenty of room for everyone to pursue their own vision. But that will only happen if local leaders encourage residents and newcomers alike to spread their wings instead of letting backroom deal-making determine who’s to be the top sheriff in town. 
With this, the original question why Amazon didn't pick Baltimore has given way to Neilly's and Baltimore's favorite game, bashing City Hall, the City's leaders, and anybody who puts any stock in them.

To make "City Hall" responsible for all of Baltimore's ills is as unhistoric and illogical as making "North Avenue" responsible for all the school's woes, or "Washington" responsible for what's wrong with America.  This type of leadership fixated thinking is precisely what stands in the way of real solutions. Systemic problems cannot be solved with competent leaders alone, and certainly not with changing out heads in rapid fire.
Are g"giddy" elected leaders responsible for Amazon not shortlisting
Baltimore? (Proposal signing ceremony at Port Covington)

The game of bashing the elected leaders is one of which this city never seems to get tired and which  online media have elevated to new heights. Whether the mayor is named Dixon, Rawlings Blake or Pugh, snarkiness reigns. In fact, one gets the impression that those three African American women have each have drawn more spite, derision and accusations than their male predecessors Schaefer, Schmoke and O'Malley combined, at least, when they were in office. The game of electing leaders only to cut them down afterwards has reached  new heights and is unsettling, because it aims at the roots of a democratic system.

When as a young council member I derided the very chamber in which I served as a chatter box (Quasselbude) Germans who fought in the resistance under Nazis painfully reminded me of the fact that those Nazis had used the same term to ridicule the national parliament. Germans have learned the hard way what happens when democratic leaders and institutions get systematically ridiculed until the people begin to believe that voting is not only superfluous but an illusion, that all elected leaders are crooks and that government is just an obstacle in the way efficiency and a strong leader. Germans have also learned the hard way that belittling the press and the media as Luegenpresse (Press of lies) has consequences for democracy.  The current bashers of local government unload their scorn equally on local media and don't seem to notice that by doing so they promote the same narrative as the man in Washington, that they employ the same destructive strategy of undercutting our system of governance.

Introspection can be quite fruitful, but the stones thrown at the elected leaders may easily land on our own feet. It is time to ask what can we do ourselves instead of only bemoaning what those do who have selected public service as their profession.
CityLab 1-31/18 : HQ2 Hunger Games

The argument here isn't that elected officials should be beyond critique or that leaership doesn't matter. The argument isn't that voters should fall asleep once the elections are over. The argument isn't that corruption and undue influence don't exist. Nor is it that there is never incompetence or greed among politicians.

Instead, the argument is that we get the government we elect and to some extent, the one we deserve. The argument is that Baltimore's systemic problems lie deeper than incompetence. The argument is that leaders act within an economic system that prioritizes personal benefit over communal benefit, a system that curtails public impact.

As long as too many voters believe in the free lunch theory (no taxes but excellent government services) there will be only marginal progress. As long as we give those who exploit this current system to the maximum (and that includes Amazon) a free pass, while deriding local leaders for how they deal with the cards handed to them,  we have it precisely backwards. Fixation on Amazon (or Under Armour) as the salvation of all our problems is just as naive as fixation on the police commissioner (or the Attorney General) as the key to the crime problem or the Mayor as the key to Baltimore's overall standing.
for years nothing but scorn and derision for Baltimore's mayors (SUN photo)

As Catherine Pugh correctly stated, we may never know why Amazon skipped Baltimore; but in all the blame searching efforts underway now, one can certainly conclude one thing: As long as Baltimoreans continue to try to conquer difficult circumstances by pinning blame on everyone elected to represent this city, whether as legislator, as council person, as Mayor or as jurisprudence, Baltimore's problem will just get bigger. Denigrating the very leaders which we just elected and turning them into scapegoats for every shortcoming in this town as soon as they take office, is comparable to the President denigrating his own department heads. And as with that man, the issue is frequently not the original denigration but what it unleashes. The problem with  Neily's  witty Brew article isn't the article itself but the torrent of government bashing that is unleashed with it as its justification.
I wonder if the argument can be made that Baltimore’s citizens are held hostage by their own government.  (online comment)
I've predicted (in writing) for 5+ years that the City is looking like a jurisdiction that is ready for a state and/or federal takeover.   (online comment)
Council members, Mayor; they're just interested in photo ops and sound bites, not in governing. Governing is hard.  (online comment)
It should be obvious that the effectiveness of a team that stands together to solve complex problems is greatly bigger than one that is driven by divisiveness and spite. Locally, we can take the Baltimore Red Line as an example. All the way to the gubernatorial election the project was subjected to spite and ridicule, by Gerald Neily for one, but also by regional Democratic politicians and community leaders who not only provided fodder to a Governor whose stated intent was to kill the project, but actively contributed to a number of delays. Only now, after the project is off the agenda, is there something like a unified front of  those same people when some attribute Amazon's decision to the lack of proper transit (refreshingly, that doesn't include Neily).

We may have a system that constitutionally provides for a strong mayor but it isn't a system where the mayor is at fault for everything that goes wrong. We have a system with an executive, a legislator and a jurisprudence providing checks and balances. But none of these branches can operate effectively if each branch is derided and ridiculed by its citizenry or when the three branches undo each other.

What exactly have "City Hall and its backers" done to prevent the people of Baltimore to "spread their wings"? What "backroom dealing" would have motivated Amazon to turn Baltimore down?  Time to get back to the real work.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


  1. We aren't grooming a new generation of smart, skilled leaders that could help the Mayor get the glory of completed, imaginative, memorable and transformative physical projects AND the spirit of success. Perhaps we will see a change with the turnover of the City Council membership that has taken place, but we need visionary leaders at the top assisted by Department heads and managers that can carry the work to completion. We can't wait for saviors to be imported and taught the neighborhoods. Baltimore was approaching that point in the days of Schaefer - with a Cabinet that was not afraid to affirm great idea but also with the guts and expertise to say "that's stupid" when applicable. It takes almost his craziness to lead with conviction. Yeah, without that Cabinet, he would have deteriorated to the State Comptroller Schaefer persona, ridiculing McDonald's cashiers and drawing ridicule in return. Any volunteers or nominees?

  2. Perhaps I'm just cynical, but I truly believe that Amazon knew where they were putting headquarters 2.0 from the start (the DC area) and wanted to see how much more they could gain for free by making it a competition. The real competition is and always has been between DC, MoCo, and NOVA.

    I also think it's a mistake from a business perspective for Amazon to locate in an already thriving metro area. It would be much better for them to come into a struggling city so that they could be the savior. Baltimore basically offered them a blank check for whatever amount Amazon wants. From a city planner perspective, I'm relieved that they aren't coming here because it would drastically increase inequality between the imported Amazon workers and existing struggling lower and working class citizens. Also, because I'd prefer to not let a corporation have control of the city checkbook.