Azavea CEO on Amazon HQ2: ‘A chance for Philly to land this would be fabulous’

As a tech exec and Callowhill neighbor, Cheetham sat down with to talk HQ2.

Azavea CEO Robert Cheetham.

(GIF via YouTube)

When we wrote about Callowhill as a possible site for Amazon’s HQ2 project, Azavea CEO Robert Cheetham chimed in wearing his other hat: that of board member on the Callowhill Neighborhood Association.

“There is an enormous amount of land that is largely unused and the connections to the rest of the transportation network are stronger than the Navy Yard,” Cheetham wrote on the comments section. “It would be a unique and extraordinary place for their headquarters.”

Of course, we had to hear more, so we caught up with the B-Corp boss at Azavea’s Callowhill HQ (on the 5th floor of 990 Spring Garden) to hear his thoughts on the project that dozens of cities are vying for.

Cheetham wouldn’t cede details, but he said he’s connected to the city’s effort to make the most compelling pitch as a site for the project, which aims to roll out a $5 billion investment and create 50,000 jobs over a decade or so.

### Philly: As a Philly neighbor, imagine Amazon taps Philly for its second headquarters. What’s your big-picture take on that possibility?

Robert Cheetham: There are a lot of potentially positive things about welcoming a large tech company to the Philly region. We have the highest poverty rate of any big city in the country, persistent unemployment and, while an org of that size investing as much as they say they will is going to have an impact, I think we’re a big enough city to absorb the investment so that it wouldn’t distort the entire property market.

TP: Some say Callowhill could house a project of that scope.

RC: In Callowhill, while to me it represents an opportunity to infill a great stretch of land that’s very much underused today, it would probably set off speculative buying and that could be very damaging. I know the city’s considering sites it has some control over, either directly or indirectly, like the Navy Yard or Schuylkill Yards. There is, though, an opportunity for transformation here. There aren’t a lot of cities that have a big industrial site like this, of this size, so close to downtown and transportation. It’s going to develop anyway, Amazon or not.


TP: Now, as a tech CEO, do you have any concerns about accessing talent?

RC: From an access to staff point of view, it scares the crap out of me. One of the great hings about Philly is that, while there’s a tech community and it’s growing over time, it’s not like in San Francisco and the Valley, where there’s high turnover and a laddering up of salaries. In places like those, the pace of startup creation and destruction is great from a tech perspective but it makes it difficult to find and retain staff. That would get harder with Amazon in town. On the other side, there’s a positive spillover effect that happens when people get experience at big organizations. The fact that Amazon can attract talent from around the world would have an enormously positive impact as well.

TP: So, what’s the bottom line?

RC: It’s very hard to tell and wouldn’t hazard a prediction but my intuition would suggest something like this is net positive for the city. Is that positive for my business? I have no idea.

TP: Do you think Philly has a shot?

RC: We have a shot. Philly has shortcoming in things like having militant unions, high taxes… How important are they to Amazon? I dont know. But this is an amazing place with a fabulous location: right between D.C. and New York. There’s a vibrant cultural scene, a number of nonprofits, universities, fabulous neighborhoods…

TP: Might it be too early in Philly’s development for something like this?

RC: Philly’s going to develop the way it’s going to develop whether or not Amazon decides to come here. Certainly something like that would be a huge positive thing. Certainly there’d be negative impacts as well. If we as a community think it’s always too early, then it will always be too early. This kind of project doesn’t come along more than once every few decades, so a chance for Philly to land this would be fabulous.

TP: As long as we’re wildly speculating, let’s say Amazon decided to go elsewhere. After all the thinking we’ve been doing, what’s our next move?

RC: I think the fact that [the bid process] has been done in a public way has catalyzed a collaboration between PIDC, the Chamber of Commerce and local tech firms to work together on a big project like this on short notice. That ability can turn into a muscle, and if you exercise it you’re going to get better. To land a big one like this it’s going to take a coordinated effort. If you want to be a big, global cosmopolitan city, you have to act like a big city, like an important place that’s on the map. And you do that not by asking “should we, shouldn’t we?” but by going out there and being that.

Companies: Azavea
People: Robert Cheetham
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