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Gary, Ind., Woos Amazon


City of Gary, Ind., took out an ad - The New York Times - this week. It was aimed at just one man, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. It starts, dear, Mr. Bezos, how are you? My name is Gary. And I am a legacy city in the northwest corner of Indiana. I was born in 1906. And my parents were Elbert Gary and U.S. Steel.

Amazon is looking for a second headquarters in North America. Gary says in the ad that the city's been going through hard times for decades. But it's just 30 miles from Chicago, at the population center of North America and close to an international airport. Half of its commercial property is vacant and probably available for a very reasonable price. Come to, Gary, the ad says. Like Amazon, I am both a game changer and a unique opportunity.

We're joined now by Max Grinnell. He teaches urban studies at the University of Chicago and keeps the blog called the Urbanologist. Max, thanks for being with us.

MAX GRINNELL: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: What could it potentially mean for a major enterprise like Amazon to come to Gary, Ind.? How would the city prosper?

GRINNELL: I think the combined purchasing payroll power of these predicted 50,000 jobs to come over the next 10 or 15 years would really mean a renaissance for Gary, both in terms of local purchasing power, improvement of transit infrastructure and, really, an effective rebirth. So that's what gets me excited about thinking about this prospect.

SIMON: What do you think Gary could give to Amazon?

GRINNELL: I think Gary offers central location. It's close to a number of freeways. There's access to Chicago. There's certainly lower cost of living for employees. Yeah, the employees will be generously compensated. But, you know, moving into a larger market - Chicago, Boston, possibly some places like Austin - you're going to have a lot of that income gobbled up immediately by real estate and housing. And I think for Gary, it's a tremendous opportunity to turn a corner.

SIMON: Yeah, but what about the tax rate?

GRINNELL: Tax rate - I mean, it's more generous than Illinois, so, certainly for businesses and corporations. So there's that appeal there. And I know there's been, you know, conversation with the governor of Indiana, Governor Holcomb, about kind of preparing this plan. I can't speak to how much of that has happened or not. But I think that's another advantage.

SIMON: There's so many cities preparing a bit for Amazon's second headquarters. But will the winner have to grant so many tax breaks, it won't wind up being that much of an economic gain?

GRINNELL: This is a conundrum, I think, cities have faced for the last few decades these kind of elaborate public-private partnerships that eventually - you know, they don't equal the kind of benefits. So the - even though people get excited, ultimately, it's states that may be in a precarious position subsidizing jobs for more than their total return on investment.

And, of course, right now, we have less than a month to submit a proposal to Amazon. So I think there's a lot of people scurrying about to think in a concrete way, what can we do and should we be doing this?

SIMON: Max, do you think an ad like this is a serious bid for Amazon or a way of Gary announcing to the world we want to talk to all kinds of enterprises?

GRINNELL: I think there's a certain seriousness and also playfulness at the same time, which is why it also caught my eye when it came through my news feed. I think, you know, attracting new businesses to Gary is going to be a challenge in general. But I think it kind of puts a little bit of the buzz in folk's ear to see an ad like this.

SIMON: Max Grinnell writes The Urbanologist blog. And he teaches urban studies at the University of Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

GRINNELL: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.