- Posted by EmpowerNonprofit
- On March 8, 2018
America has HQ2 fever. People across North America are fixated on Amazon’s contest to select the location of its second headquarters The process is especially mesmerizing for residents of the 20 finalist metropolitan areas, including Indianapolis, where I live. Yet not everyone is viewing HQ2 with the same things in mind. While most people are focused on the benefits of landing the tech giant (50,000 employees and billions of dollars of economic impact!), a growing chorus of voices is starting to ask a different question: “What would be the social impacts of HQ2?”
The question is valid. Economic booms bring change and HQ2 would create an instant explosion, especially in a city the size of Indianapolis (metro area: 2 million). Alongside the jobs and cash would be a flood of new residents—not just Amazon employees but everyone else looking to make a buck from the new venture. For an idea of what HQ2 might do to Indianapolis, residents might want to consider Amazon’s current home, Seattle.
Seattle’s metro area is twice the size of Indianapolis, but the online retailer and its downtown campus has an outsize influence on the Washington city. Longtime residents can offer a litany of changes since Amazon arrived, including terrible traffic and outrageous housing costs. Those impacts, in turn, have spawned other problems, including some of the highest rates of homelessness and violent crime in the country.
Some might assume that a company as big as Amazon would take a large role in addressing the problems it has helped create. That’s not the case in Seattle. While Amazon has not turned its back on social problems near HQ1 (recently announcing the siting of a homeless shelter in a new office building), it has been slow to get involved and its philanthropic investments are small relative to the problems Seattle faces.
History in Seattle and elsewhere suggests that nonprofits and neighborhood groups will be charged with managing and paying for the unintended social impacts of HQ2. That’s why it wasn’t surprising that Amazon’s presence (in spirit, at least) was evident at the recent Neighbor Power Indy (NPI) 2018 event sponsored by the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center. NPI is an energizing day of training, networking and celebrating for people who cherish and work hard to improve life in the city’s many distinctive neighborhoods.
Amazon jumped to the forefront of NPI thanks to remarks by Mayor Joe Hogsett. Speaking “off script,” the optimistic first-term Democrat used the event as an opportunity to brag about Indy’s status as one of the 20 finalists. His message: Indy’s vibrant neighborhoods helped thrust the city ahead of 218 also-rans in the contest.
Amazon and other players responsible for Indy’s recent tech boom were already on the minds of NPI participants. Neighborhood groups are addressing problems like poverty and crime, but gentrification is also a big threat. In what were once working class neighborhoods ringing downtown Indy, rents have risen sharply and buying a house requires some serious coin. Long-time and lower-income residents are being displaced and disconnected from the family, friends and social structure that once sustained them. People of color are especially feeling the impacts.
Like in Seattle, the impacts of gentrification in Indianapolis are evident, with homelessness and violent crime rising. The nonprofits and neighborhood groups addressing these problems are already stretched to the limits. Throw Amazon HQ2—or another big development now that Indy has been “discovered”—into the mix and the job ahead looks downright overwhelming.
The lesson learned at NPI was that nonprofits and neighborhood groups need to collaborate if they want to successfully navigate the unfolding tech boom. Right now, the Indy nonprofit community is somewhat fragmented. The neighborhood-centric energy is heartening but the landscape is dotted with dozens of small, under-resourced groups operating independently on similar problems that cross neighborhood boundaries.
The situation brings to mind the fable about the bundled sticks. An individual stick from a pile can be picked up and easily snapped in half. But tie the sticks into a tight bundle and they’re unbreakable, able to withstand tremendous forces.
Will Indy’s nonprofits and neighborhood groups approach the forces driving gentrification and negative social impacts as individual sticks? Or will they bundle together as a common and forceful voice? Collaboration offers the best way forward for groups working to improve the community. Otherwise, they’re bound to get broken by the forces of progress, and we’ll all pay a steep price.