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What’s Wrong With Bruce Rauner Boosting St. Louis for the Amazon Headquarters?

As Plan Bs go, it’s not bad—a healthy percentage of the city’s workforce consists of Illinois residents, so the state could get a few thousand jobs for its residents at presumably zero cost.

Yeah, what?   Photo: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune

The other day Bruce Rauner announced that his administration would be assisting St. Louis in getting the new Amazon headquarters as a backup to a potential Chicago location. If it seems a bit funny that the governor of Illinois would be helping another state get one of the most sought-after corporate projects in years, Rauner has an argument: “we have a major population center in Metro East, we have major strategic transportation advantages in Metro East around the St. Louis area.”

But doing so isn’t without its risks, and Crain’s Joe Cahill lit into Rauner:

Perhaps Rauner is so invested in his Illinois-as-basket-case 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.

Rauner’s made a bit of his own bed in this instance, but there’s a logic to assisting St. Louis; the potential benefits to downstate are non-trivial. A lot of people, perhaps a surprising number, live in Illinois and commute to St. Louis. According to the 2009-2013 American Community Survey, almost 37,000 people live in the Illinois counties that make up part of St. Louis’s metropolitan area—Bond, Calhoun, Clinton, Jersey, Macoupin, Madison, Monroe, and St. Clair—and work in the city of St. Louis. That’s about a third as large as the population that lives in St. Louis County and works in the city, and about half as many as both live and work in the city.

In the St. Louis metro, there are five counties (plus the city of St. Louis) where over 10,000 people live who also work in the city. Two are Illinois counties:

  • St. Louis County: 97,322
  • St. Louis City: 81,999
  • St. Clair County (IL): 17,350
  • Jefferson County: 14,193
  • St. Charles County: 14,098
  • Madison County (IL): 13,572

The ACS counts about 255,000 people who work in the city of St. Louis, which means about 15 percent of its workforce lives in Illinois. If the Amazon headquarters did generate the promised 50,000 jobs and the same percentage lived in Illinois as everyone else (a simplistic assumption, admittedly), that’s 7,500 new jobs for Illinois residents, with whatever property taxes and sales taxes they’d pay. Missouri would get the bulk of the benefits, but they’d also be responsible for whatever package is needed to land Amazon, which is likely to be extremely generous.

St. Louis would be a long shot, anyway. Amazon’s request for proposals says density and transit are priorities; St. Louis ranks 23rd in transit ridership among major American cities. (But there is light rail from St. Clair County.) As Conor Sen has noted, even if the RFP sets the minimum metro size at one million people, the company might need a metro much larger than that in order to staff up. St. Louis’s metro population is 2.8 million, about a million less than Seattle.

The other reason it’s unlikely that Rauner would undercut Chicago just to stick it to Madigan and Emanuel, and feed the downstate-Chicagoland animus for votes, is pretty simple. As Rich Miller noted in 2014 in Crain’s:

Mr. Rauner scored just above the magic 20 percent number in Chicago — the point where a Republican can help balance out the rest of the state’s vote. But he didn’t really need it. He out-performed Brady’s 2010 performance in suburban Cook County by six points, outdid the Downstater Brady in his own region by a point and hugely trumped Brady’s 2010 numbers throughout the collar counties.

I broke down the totals in a lot of detail here. Rauner did really, really well in Cook County and the collar counties, getting about 50,000 more votes than Bill Brady in 2010. He beat Pat Quinn, an extremely unpopular incumbent Democrat, by about 140,000 votes. Rauner is coming in to the next election after a two-year budget standoff and his Turnaround Agenda greatly diminished, and (as of March at least) brutal polling numbers among independents. An Amazon headquarters in Chicago would benefit the collar counties, and he theoretically still has the potential to do well there.

Rauner doesn’t have a realistic incentive to shortchange Chicago’s bid; he does have some modest but real incentives to give Missouri some assistance. It’s a decent Plan B, and Illinois needs all the plans it can get.

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