Whose side is Bruce Rauner on? Earlier this week, our governor said his administration is helping Missouri in its bid to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to St. Louis. Noting the possible spillover benefits for nearby Illinois counties, Rauner said, “We will be working in assistance with the St. Louis proposal.”
Perhaps the statement was just an empty political gesture meant to placate downstate constituencies as Rauner’s economic development team works to bring the online retail giant’s new hub to Chicago. He hastened to add that his “real focus” is on Chicago’s bid.
Let’s hope so. Any material assistance to Missouri would be a stunning betrayal, undermining Illinois’ only realistic contender for one of the biggest economic development prizes in a generation.
If Chicago wins, up to 50,000 Amazon jobs—and an untold amount of related business activity—will come to our state, generating exponentially greater benefits for Illinois than a St. Louis victory. Rauner and his team should devote 100 percent of their efforts to Chicago’s bid, and waste no time or resources on St. Louis.
First of all, St. Louis is a long-shot bidder at best. The Gateway City has far fewer of the characteristics Amazon seeks than Chicago and other major metropolitan areas. Chicago has vastly more talent, air-travel connections, mass transit, top-tier universities and world-class cultural amenities.
Second, Rauner is kidding himself if he thinks Missouri would let Illinois share the bounty of an Amazon base in St. Louis. Sure, some Illinois residents would land jobs across the Mississippi River. But don’t expect Amazon to open offices in East St. Louis or Alton. Missouri lawmakers shelling out tax subsidies to Amazon would want every last dollar invested in their state.
Most important, Rauner would weaken Chicago’s bid if he strengthens St. Louis.’ Chicago has Amazon’s wish list pretty well covered, but so do other cities. To win against tough competition, Illinois needs to speak with one voice on behalf of Chicago.
What will Amazon’s decision-makers think if Illinois officials stumping for Chicago simultaneously talk up St. Louis? Most likely, they’ll start to doubt Chicago’s sales pitch.
Rauner already has planted plenty of doubt in the mind of anyone sizing up Chicago and Illinois. Speaking with WBEZ radio last week about the Amazon headquarters contest, he couldn’t resist repeating his frequent complaints about the local business environment. Many of his points are well-taken, and intended to advance an agenda he truly believes will boost Illinois’ long-term fortunes. But Rauner’s routine diatribes sound like the words of a man rooting against his own state.
Perhaps Rauner is so invested in his Illinois-as-basketcase narrative—and his personal animosity toward Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Michael Madigan—that an economic coup for Chicago would feel like a defeat. Maybe he worries that an Amazon move to Chicago would undercut his argument that Illinois has become so unattractive to business that only deep reforms will save the state’s economy.
If so, he’s blinded himself not only to the economic upside for Illinois, but also to his own political interest in bringing Amazon to Chicago. Rauner is heading into next year’s reelection campaign without major accomplishments to cite. Winning Amazon’s second headquarters would give him a big victory to brag about in stump speeches. And metro Chicago has a lot more votes than Metro East.
I suspect Rauner knows a win for Chicago is a win for Illinois and for him. What he may not fully appreciate is the credibility challenge he faces in pivoting from Illinois basher to Illinois cheerleader. Boosting St. Louis out of the other side of his mouth would expand that credibility gap and hurt our chances of winning.