PITTSBURGH — It would have been fun for me if Amazon’s HQ2 had ended up here, not only for the intriguing storylines but for the excuse to visit more often.
But for Pittsburgh? I’m not so sure.
As a reporter who covers the company, that thought keeps crossing my mind this week as I reacquaint myself with the mostly charming quirks of this gritty “tahn,” a hybrid of Midwest and East Coast where they quoted a late, local public television legend in their 2017 pitch for Amazon’s $5 billion second headquarters.
“This is a place where Fred Rogers asked, ‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’ It is a sentiment we extend to Amazon and its employees,” read one passage in the introduction to Pittsburgh’s 77-page Amazon HQ2 proposal. “In Pittsburgh, you will be our neighbor, and we will treat you like one.”
Who could say no to Mr. Rogers?
But looking back at the proposal, made public after regional leaders went to court in an unsuccessful effort to keep it under wraps, the best part was how Pittsburgh came up with its “$21.6 billion economic offer” — combining creative financing with some classic yinzer charm, boldly ignoring the whole “second headquarters” thing and suggesting Amazon move its first headquarters instead.
“Compared to current operations in Seattle, Amazon will save an estimated $17.7 billion in labor, healthcare, and utility costs over 25 years simply by relocating to Pittsburgh,” the proposal read. “No other city in America can offer this level of long-term cost savings with world-class talent and amenities.”
The remainder of the $21.6 billion came in the form of tax breaks, free land, infrastructure investments, and other traditional economic incentives.
Of course, Pittsburgh was an extreme long shot for HQ2, despite the best efforts of local leaders such as then-Mayor Bill Peduto, who was holding out hope that libertarian-leaning Jeff Bezos shared his liberal values based on what he read in the Washington Post editorial page — a misperception that was charming in its own way.
Yes, this is ancient history. But it’s worth revisiting, because now we know how that chapter of the story ends. I can sense it all around me in Pittsburgh this week.
This place is probably better off without Amazon HQ2.
GeekWire HQ2, a brief history
But first, here’s the answer to the obvious question: Why are you in Pittsburgh?
It goes back to 2017, to a sunny afternoon at a GeekWire happy hour in our hometown of Seattle. With Amazon’s HQ2 search in full swing, somebody came up with the fun idea of doing our own HQ2 search.
Amazingly, it still seemed like a fun idea after we sobered up.
So we distributed our own request for proposals for consideration by cities around the country, promising to deliver “up to three jobs and daily media coverage” by establishing a second, temporary GeekWire headquarters for one month in the chosen tech hub. Our requirements for the place included good food, fun people and interesting stories.
Sure, it was a spoof, but it was also hands-on, experiential journalism, the biggest example yet of what we like to call a “GeekWire Adventure.”
In fact, we received 10 serious responses to our RFP: from Washington, D.C.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Sacramento; Raleigh, N.C.; Pittsburgh; Phoenix; Philadelphia; Madison, Wis.; Denver; and Cincinnati.
Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science submitted the winning proposal for “GeekWire HQ2” on behalf of Pittsburgh, offering no direct financial incentives but a huge amount of value in time, help and connections.
As we explained back then, we chose Pittsburgh because of “all the fascinating stuff to cover here: robotics and artificial intelligence, interesting startups, Uber’s self-driving cars, and engineering centers for major tech companies including Microsoft and Google.” We also noted the many interesting challenges we’d get to cover, “everything from transportation and infrastructure problems to the labor shortage and economic disparity.”
We did all that and then some, publishing more than 90 stories in February 2018 from our temporary headquarters in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, with support from our sponsors and patience from our loyal readers in the Seattle region who were befuddled by our sudden Pittsburgh obsession.
A total of six reporters and editors took part in the project — most of our news team at the time — arriving in Pittsburgh in platoons throughout the month. Most of us stayed for a week or so, with the exception of Taylor Soper, now GeekWire’s managing editor, who held down the fort for the entire month.
It was fun, exhausting, and reinvigorating to do what we do with fresh eyes in a new and interesting place. As a group, we developed a deep affection for Pittsburgh, and a newfound appreciation for just how fortunate we are to get to cover the tech industry and community in the Seattle area.
In Pittsburgh, where people roll their eyes at journalists who parachute in for the obligatory story on the new robots, we’ll always take pride in the headline on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial about our HQ2: “GeekWire gets us.”
And then we went home.
We explored the idea of establishing a permanent news outpost in Pittsburgh, but the plan had always been to stay for just a month, and on the business side of the house, it seemed too daunting as outsiders try to expand an operation that relies on sponsorships, advertising, community support, and institutional knowledge. Plus, we have our hands full covering everything in Seattle and Pacific Northwest tech.
But we’ve stayed in touch and always talked about the possibility of a return visit, so when the opportunity arose recently, we welcomed it, especially after two years mostly cooped up in our homes.
We’re back to report on robotics and AI over the next week in conjunction with the Cascadia Connect Robotics, Automation & AI conference, taking place May 2-4 in Pittsburgh. Seattle-based investment bank Cascadia Capital, organizer of the conference, is underwriting our independent reporting here. I’ve been playing the role of advance scout, and I’ll be joined by a few of my colleagues this weekend.
I’m avoiding the temptation to call it GeekWire HQ2.5.
Lessons from Amazon HQ2
Returning after four years has felt at times like stepping into a time machine.
Like many cities emerging from the pandemic, Pittsburgh continues to face more than its share of challenges, including empty storefronts, a declining population, gentrification, and housing and racial inequities.
Dissatisfaction with the city’s direction under its prior leadership came through in the historic election of state Rep. Ed Gainey as Pittsburgh’s new mayor, ousting the incumbent Peduto in the primary last year.
Parachuting in as I have this time, I won’t pretend to understand the larger issues facing Pittsburgh. But in my time here this week, I’ve been struck by the way the robotics industry, in particular, has continued to rise up organically, leveraging one of Pittsburgh’s strengths to create a foundation for something bigger.
The rejuvenated Pittsburgh Robotics Network counts more than 100 companies in what it calls the Pittsburgh Robotics Cluster, up from 80 a year ago. Many of them have operations in what’s known as Robotics Row, including the Strip District, which was one of the key areas pitched by the region to Amazon in its HQ2 proposal.
In the original HQ2 concept, Amazon envisioned bringing 50,000 jobs to one region, which was viewed as a potential economic boon by hundreds of communities in North America that submitted bids.
But it’s clear now that the arrival of one company at that scale that would have sucked the oxygen out of most tech and entrepreneurial communities.
“They basically would have had to hire every tech person in Pittsburgh,” said Mark Anthony Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, an affiliate of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “You don’t want to do that to one ecosystem.”
Thomas has a unique perspective on Amazon’s HQ2 search due to his prior role as senior vice president of partnerships for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, participating in that city’s winning bid for a piece of the Amazon project, which later unraveled as the company backed out in the face of NYC opposition.
“I think we were the poster child of what would become ‘techlash’ across the country,” Thomas said.
Amazon’s HQ2 is proceeding in the other winning region, Northern Virginia, with plans for 25,000 employees there. But through the process of the HQ2 bid, Amazon seemed to be learning lessons from the reaction to its growth in its hometown of Seattle, where the company has around 80,000 employees across the region.
The company has an engineering office in Pittsburgh, but it’s one of many here, not the biggest of the bunch, and that’s leaving room for what local leaders hope will be an even stronger tech ecosystem in the future, with enough time to foresee and take steps to avoid the acceleration of economic inequity that might accompany a giant’s arrival.
“I see all of the best parts of the region coming together: robotics, life sciences, automation, the creative economy,” Thomas said. “All those things really have great potential. They just haven’t been invested in the way that other places have. This is a moment to change that.”
In the meantime, it’s good to be back, to be surprised by the three different people nodding and saying hello when I passed them during an evening walk through the Strip District; by the interior designer who welcomed me into her shop to see what became of our HQ2; and by the local resident and her pooch who were totally unphased when I launched my drone from a dog park to take the picture at the top of this story.
To borrow another line from Mr. Rogers: Pittsburgh, I like you just the way you are.