Bidding wars

Among the first stories I wrote for Maclean’s after joining the newsmagazine in 1978 was a behind-the-scenes account of how governments helped Windsor, Ont., beat out Lima, Ohio, for a $500 million engine plant Ford was planning to build. I was able to reveal all the negotiations that took place among Ontario Premier Bill Davis, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and Ford President Roy Bennett during the Calgary Stampede of all places. When I next saw the premier, he said the story read as if I’d been in the room, just the sort of comment a young magazine writer wants to hear.

Looking back, that public support was a pittance. Ottawa contributed $40 million and Ontario $28 million to secure hundreds of direct jobs and thousands more spinoff jobs. We’re back in a similar situation today with Amazon dangling the possibility of a second headquarters that will entail an investment by Amazon of $5 billion and the creation of 50,000 jobs. Amazon’s request for proposals asks what financial incentive any jurisdiction that makes a bid would be prepared to offer.

The Government of Ontario has gone all lily white. Former TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, the province’s point man on the project, says no “bribe” will be paid, but they might help with land. Beyond that, nothing. A coalition of municipalities under the leadership of former CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon has been formed but has not said what incentives the group might have in mind.

I say, go for it. Offer $1 billion, minimum. We’ve spent more for less. Look at e-health. I can’t imagine how much that fiasco has cost us yet doctors and hospitals are still swamped under paper-based medical records. If we win, the arrival of Amazon would forever change the region for the better. If Denver wins, as the New York Times has predicted, we keep our money. Meanwhile, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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