Lee Schafer
See more of the story

The Twin Cities doesn’t have to get Amazon’s second headquarters and its potential of 50,000 jobs to get a big win out of the new headquarters sweepstakes.

That’s because as a region we now get to carefully compare ourselves with the most attractive metropolitan areas as they vie for the attention of a high-tech company as it decides where to put 50,000 management and technical jobs. If we are honest with each other, we should end up knowing a lot more about what we need to work on.

Even if Amazon doesn’t pick the Twin Cities, you have to assume that the factors that make the difference to Amazon will matter to big employers like UnitedHealth Group, U.S. Bancorp and Medtronic as they keep adding managers, marketers and engineers here.

It will be a little like a college football team’s coach ringing up last year’s league champions to schedule them for the season opener. Sure the odds of winning might not be great, but at least the coach and players will soon know how they stack up against the best. So let’s play the game.

Every midsize metro area that perceives itself as having a shot will be competing, ginning up some sort of proposal to try to land this one. The impact of up to 50,000 jobs dwarfs the value of the proposed Foxconn Technology facility in southeast Wisconsin, where a $3 billion taxpayer incentive package continues to inch toward formal approval.

Having Amazon in town has been a career-maker for any economic development bureaucrat in greater Seattle. Its campus in its hometown has 33 buildings and more than 8 million square feet, housing more than 40,000 employees — and two dozen restaurants.

Other companies have used the gravitational pull that Amazon exerts on software developers and other technically skilled people as an opportunity to open their own research and development facilities nearby. So as a practical matter, Amazon can’t get much bigger in Seattle.

Amazon didn’t put out a detailed wish list of what it was hoping to find in a second headquarters town, but it provided enough information to rule out some places. It won’t build in a metro area of fewer than 1 million people, for instance, which knocks out places like Omaha.

Its new headquarters town also has to have a major international airport within 45 minutes of the facility, with nonstop flights daily to places it cares about, including Seattle, New York and San Francisco. That’s going to be a tough requirement for some other midsize metro areas.

On those items, we seem to be doing great, as the greater Twin Cities region is roughly the same size as greater Seattle at about 3.5 million people. And Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has several times the number of daily nonstop flights to Seattle as Kansas City does.

In reading through the Amazon request for proposal, what seems to loom large is the ability of employees and visitors to get around easily on the ground, and the depth of the labor pool. In both of these scores, the Twin Cities region seems to be doing pretty well.

The Twin Cities region has one of the highest percentages of people ages 25 to 64 with at least an associates’ degree, about 52.6 percent according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks educational attainment. That’s miles ahead of other metro areas posited in the media as contenders in the Amazon sweepstakes, with Phoenix at less than 39 percent with an associates’ degree and Indianapolis at 42 percent.

The Twin Cities metro area had the 12th largest technology labor pool last year, too, as ranked by the real estate consulting firm CBRE. While that may not seem impressive, the Twin Cities area came in right under Houston on the ranking, and Houston is a much larger metro area. And again, the Twin Cities ranked higher than places like Phoenix.

The ability to easily get around the area isn’t just a nice-to-have for Amazon, it’s a must-have, judging from the request. Amazon’s “core preference” is that any Amazon worker has access to a bus or train right at the worksite. Major arterial roads and freeways can’t be any farther away than a mile or two. And the traffic has to actually move on these roads.

Maybe this is generous, but the Twin Cities seems to deserve a grade of no worse than a “B.” And some cities with big vibrant economies aren’t going to do very well on this score.

Of cities in the American south, only Houston made the top 25 in a July study of top metro areas for transit. In another ranking, by the transit information site AllTransit, metro Atlanta barely got on the list, coming in at No. 25. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul appeared on the list, with Minneapolis just out of the top 10.

On top of these basic business location factors, of course, Amazon asked for information on what it gently called “incentives,” the money states and local governments are surely planning to throw at Amazon in the form of tax credits, property tax abatements and maybe even taxpayer subsidy schemes that none of us have seen before.

If the incentives package turns out to be the deciding factor for Amazon, that will be the worst possible outcome. Then no city or state officials here will be asking what needs to be done to improve transportation or higher education enough to be a major player nationally.

Losing the Amazon sweepstakes to an eye-popping incentives deal would feel a little like losing the football game to last year’s league champions, but only because the opposing coach decided to cheat and bring in a few ringers from the NFL.

The game will have been lost without finding out how competitive we really are.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302