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How Amazon learned to love and thrive in Baltimore

Written by Michael Grella for Medium

The history, challenges and leadership of the City of Baltimore were under a microscope this summer as tweets, speeches and press releases exchanged heated opinions and rhetoric.

Baltimore is in need of further attention, resources and commitments if it is going to fulfill its potential as one of the great coastal/port cities of America.

On the other hand name-calling, finger-pointing, and denials will not solve the impacts of institutional poverty, economic inequality, social injustice, de facto segregation, underfunded and underperforming schools, lack of meaningful private sector investment, food deserts, crime and abandoned houses. Baltimoreans deserve more than hope and lip service that will enable every citizen to climb the socioeconomic ladder and broaden prosperity to areas of the City that have been left behind for generations.

In light of the not so Charming comments about Charm City over the summer and as I found myself with an extremely rare gift of some free time while on a family vacation I felt compelled to share a candid, not sugar coated, story about how Amazon came to love Baltimore and hopefully provide inspiration for others to commit the time, resources, grit and tenacity to catalyze economic opportunity in a City that will return the love that you give to them ten-fold.

This is not a love story. This is reality. Long-term relationships are tough, they have ups and downs. There are disagreements, sometimes strong disagreements. But when you truly care about one another you respect each other’s opinions, keep an open mind, look for common ground and hopefully the bond you share becomes more resilient and your love deeper and more meaningful.

When I was chosen to lead Amazon’s brand new in-house Economic Development Team in March 2012, I asked my new boss, what most new employees would ask in the first week on the job: “what should I be doing?” His response was simple: “Whatever you think you should be doing? That’s what I hired you for.” Fair enough.

I took that profound advice to heart and created a game plan for successfully tackling the challenges associated with expansion project and engaging public stakeholders on economic development matters. It wasn’t perfect but I started with a few basic tenets:

1. Don’t be greedy, don’t have your hand-out.

2. Obsess over finding the win-win for the company and the community

3. Don’t be a stranger — engage those whom disagree with you or whom express concern, trepidation or even actively oppose what you’re doing. The worst thing you can do is allow negative sentiment, misperceptions to fester.

4. If there’s a misperception or lack of engagement that puts a project at risk, you ignore it, then you own it. Many times nonfeasance can be just as injurious as malfeasance.

Getting back to Baltimore…

As I recall it was early 2013 when I was tasked with engaging State, City and Local officials about the possibility of locating a million square foot fulfillment center. I had the good fortune of connecting at an Economic Development conference with Jerry Sanford, at the time, with the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development, and with whom I’ve since forged a close friendship (BTW, congratulations to Jerry whom recently joined Alexandria Economic Development as their VP of Business Development).

It was my job to know all about the potentially lucrative state and local incentives and tax abatements the City and State could offer but I didn’t know much about the City of Baltimore and one of my greatest strengths is knowing what I don’t know. I needed Jerry’s help and fortunately he was exactly the right person to know. What little I did know about Baltimore I had learned from my former Amazon Economic Development colleague and current Google Real Estate Executive, Eric Murray, a long-time and extremely proud Baltimorean and my de facto city historian.

Additionally, I had the good fortune of being supported by Frank Boston; Amazon’s government affairs representative for Maryland. In addition to being one of the most affable people on the planet, he knows his way around Baltimore and Maryland politics like few others, the son of legendary Maryland House of Delegates member Frank Boston, he grew up in politics and with east filled the extremely big shoes worn by his father.

As conversations progressed I was told that in order to be successful it was imperative that the Company explain the project’s value proposition and impact to policymakers and public officials. What followed was a whirlwind tour of meetings with the State including then DBED Commissioner Dominick Murray, Baltimore City Council members’ offices, engagement with Mayor Rawlings-Blake and her senior staff as well as Brenda McKenzie, Colin Tarbert and Larysa Salamacha of the Baltimore Development Corporation; another great partner and zealous advocates for Economic Development. There were two common themes repeated in every single meeting. First, we are excited about the old GM plant on Broening Highway [which closed in 2005] being revitalized into a new state-of-the-art fulfillment center and all of the jobs that will come to Southeast Baltimore. Second, as many of those jobs as possible need to be filled by local residents. No excuses. This was not a surprise as the mandate to engage the local community was already communicated by Jerry and Frank.

What I didn’t appreciate at the time were the socioeconomic and racial dynamics of the area and I quickly got an education. There’s a distinction between Baltimore City and Baltimore County. For those unfamiliar with the area the City, particularly the area near the project site is a majority minority city. A city with a quarter of residents living poverty and over 8% unemployment rate (about three points higher than the state average at the time) as well as low rates of car ownership, broadband adoption and internet access — an important point which I’ll explain why in a moment. Baltimore County, which comprise a large chunk of the suburbs outside of Baltimore County, is approximately three-quarters white and twenty-percent African-American with higher median income, car ownership and internet access. For all the talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, it starts with community engagement. If you are not deliberate and intentional in making the extra effort then it’s likely that the status quo will continue if not exacerbate. To not put in that effort when you have the resources to do so would be not just lazy, but immoral and contrary to principles of corporate and social responsibility. Ladies & Gentlemen, it’s time to walk the walk…

In October 2013, Mayor Rawlings-Blake declared Amazon’s announcement of 1,000 new full-time job “a great day for Baltimore. The Mayor’s enthusiasm and sentiments were echoed by then Governor O’Malley, City Officials, and representatives from the BDC.

As construction progressed on the site and we fast forward to July 2014, we are getting closer to begin hiring for the fulfillment center. Over 1,000 full-time jobs with competitive pay, 401(k) with employer match, stock grants, paid time off, 95% tuition reimbursement to pursue degrees for in-demand careers and most importantly comprehensive health-care benefits. These jobs were highly sought after by many in the community notwithstanding there are critics whom question the quality of the job opportunities and compensation. In Southeast Baltimore, at least, critics’ voices were mostly drowned out by the overwhelming majority of residents welcoming full-time employment opportunities especially ones that include healthcare.

To engage the local community we were encouraged to get creative and we did. An introductory meeting was set up with the late Pastor Stephen L. Thomas, Sr., and his wife Natalie at the Zion Baptist Church of Christ on Broening Highway, a one-minute drive from the project site and the perfect place to meet local residents. Pastor Thomas and his wife were extremely gracious hosts welcoming the Amazon Team into their church, giving us a tour, including the church’s daycare facilities where staff dutifully take care of and nurture members’ children while they work. In many cases, if not for the support of the church, parents would be unable to work and provide for their families. We listened to the history of the church, founded in 1990 by the Pastor, Mrs. Thomas and about fifty followers which has grown into a large community congregation (now led by Pastor Stephen Thomas, Jr.). We were told about the importance of engaging, listening attentively, and responding honestly to congregation members with whom we were invited to speak and discuss the project.

It got a bit tricky reporting back to Seattle that we were looking to host an event a church. The Company, while supportive of faith based organizations, to my knowledge, had not hosted or spoken at an event in a house of worship. It was uncharted territory. One well-intentioned individual, unfamiliar with the nuance between government institutions and corporations expressed concern about violating the principle of “separation of church and state”. I quickly explained the concept did not apply to corporations yet I understood precisely where the concern was coming from and knew additional diligence & persuasion was needed if we were to get the green light to go ahead with the meeting. After various conference calls, e-mail chains, meetings, additional context and perspective was given. One needs to appreciate there is over 2,700 miles that separates Charm City and the Emerald City and so it was the team’s responsibility to fill any knowledge gaps about the history and current state of affairs in Baltimore and why this was so important. At the end of the day, there was broad consensus and enthusiastic support for hosting the information session at the church; there really wasn’t any other place that made sense to engage the community. The church was literally and figuratively at the center of the community.

There was very good press and visibility for the July meeting as it was picked up by several local news outlets, promoted by City Council members in addition to being promoted by the Pastor himself to the congregation. There were several folks from Amazon speaking, including myself, to what ended up being a packed Church. While we expected a decent turnout, I think everyone was surprised a few hundred people showed up to ask questions. I couldn’t have been more pleased and at the same time nervous about what direction the information session would go in. I had done information sessions before and as much as you prepare you never know how it will turn out never mind how it will be reported by the press (and read by executives back in Seattle). After providing an overview of the project there were questions about traffic and timing for the jobs but then there was a curveball as there always is.

The process for obtaining a job at an Amazon fulfillment center is simple for most people. Applications are submitted online first and require the applicant to have a working e-mail address. Prospective workers are then contacted via email about hiring events where applicants can be expected to interview and potentially be offered a position. How hard can that be? It’s not hard if you have a computer with internet access. So what if you don’t?

How do you apply for a job if you don’t have a computer and internet access? Can you make an exception and accept paper applications? The answer was the process is all electronic, thus, without a computer that has internet access you can’t apply for a job. Baltimore, we have a problem.

While it may have been intuitive to some people that a meaningful number local residents may not have a computer with internet access, something for those whom are blessed and privileged, including myself, often took for granted, we had to do something about this. It was further explained that if Amazon could not come up with an acceptable solution that made it easy for local residents to apply for a job then those jobs would be filled elsewhere. While the Company is agnostic to an applicant’s location in the hiring process the rules of supply and demand will always win. If you limit the supply of applicants from the City [albeit unintentionally] whom lack the resources to submit an application and you have a disproportionate number of applications from non-local residents whom have computers and internet connectivity inevitably a disproportionate number of positions will be filled by non-local residents. Ideally an employer has a workforce that is reflective of the diversity of the community where it operates and it also benefits from having workers that are closer to the facility to decrease commuting time, increase employee satisfaction, reduce turnover and also reduce your company’s carbon emissions footprint. To address this challenge was not just good business, it was a moral imperative.

One of the first things you learn at Amazon is the company’s leadership principles (I encourage everyone to at least glance at them as I believe they are ubiquitous and not just specific to working at Amazon: If you’re thinking of applying for a job at Amazon you’ll likely increase your chances of getting the job if you learn them in advance and contextualize them in responses to questions during your interviews. Anyway, one of the “LPs” is Invent and Simplify followed by this description: “Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by ‘not invented here’.” It was explained to the audience that we would look into how to make the application process more accessible and made a promise that we would come up with a solution that was satisfactory (my personal bar was even higher — I wanted to come up with a solution that was exceptional).

Another issue was raised that could serve as a barrier to providing employment opportunities to local residents: transportation. While the fulfillment center was only 0.4 miles from the church that didn’t mean that everyone would be able to commute from their home to the facility. Fortunately, we had anticipated this issue ahead of time and worked with State and City officials about adjusting public transit routes in a way that would get employees close to the facility combined with Amazon sponsored employee shuttles to the facility entrance. It wasn’t that simple, though it was simpler than addressing potential inequities due to the technology access gap in the application process.

Promises made, promises kept. Fast forward to February 2015. The bar raising Amazon PR and HR/recruiting teams worked side-by-side with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, Governor’s Office, BDC and Eastside One-Stop Career Center folks to promote career fairs, reported by news & radio outlets, flyers distributed, word-of-mouth including from our friends at Zion Baptist Church of Christ. People were waved in from the cold to the One-Stop Career Center as over 400 people showed up for four information sessions the first day to learn about jobs at the new Amazon warehouse opening in the Spring. Additional sessions were held on two other days that were fully booked and attended by over 800 people.

The City along with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation had a crew of about 25 at the One-Stop Career Center on Tuesday to manage the crowd, which spilled over the number who had registered in advance for the two morning and afternoon information sessions. Rather than have people waiting outside in the cold, Amazon agreed to conduct two more abbreviated sessions in the morning. (Credit to the Baltimore Sun whom reported on these events as described:

Kris Cornett, an Amazon recruiter, stood in front of a projection screen before a capacity audience of about 100 people during the first session, talking about the company and the jobs on offer.

Six months after opening the fulfillment center, there was a Grand Opening event on September 29, 2015. The opening ceremony, included speeches by Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other dignitaries, Congressman Ruppersberger described the project and its jobs as “Extremely exciting for Baltimore City and the region as a whole.” He also said, “They took the risk, evaluated the different areas and picked Baltimore,” but his most memorable quote that drew laughs and applause from the crowd summed up not just the benefits of the jobs but the benefits of the proximity of the facility to local customers. He opined, “Imagine you have a baby, its 9 p.m. and you just ran out of diapers. You now have three options: Google how to make a diaper out of a t-shirt, yell at your husband or order diapers from Amazon and get them in two hours.

Why am I writing about this facility in Baltimore now? Baltimore is not making headlines this week and Amazon has opened many other facilities, including in Baltimore, since the “BWI2” facility opened? I say why not? There’s over 2,500 full-time Amazonians working at the facility receiving competitive wages and health-care benefits and supporting families. While I don’t have day to day visibility to local issues occurring at the facility or in the community and like every relationship I’m sure there’s ups and downs but it’s hard to argue this project wasn’t important to the City, local residents and most importantly to the Company whom was charmed by Charm City so much so that it has opened multiple additional facilities, invested hundreds of millions of additional dollars and created thousands of more jobs in the area under the leadership of Governor Hogan and Maryland DBED Commissioner Kelly Schulz whom I had the pleasure of meeting with at the National Governors Association summer meeting in Salt Lake City in July.

Baltimore’s best days are ahead of it and I consider it an honor and an incredible learning experience to have played a small part in planting the seeds that will continue to grow and blossom thankful for the friendships, relationships and learning experiences about the criticality of community engagement, partnership, diversity, inclusion and equity in urban economic development.


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