(Photo: B. Kessler)

Dallas and the HQ2 Delusion: What Happens When Your Amazon Box Arrives Empty?

Like the other cities participating in the frenzied Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes, the City of Dallas is now left to wonder what happened. How exactly did New York City and Crystal City, VA, prevail? What’s the takeaway lesson for a can-do city that, in this case, didn’t get it done?

Despite the gleeful optimism that comes with being named a finalist for the massive prize, we now know that Dallas was never really going to land the project.

“I didn’t think we had that much of a chance, for a lot of different reasons,” Mark Cuban, Amazon enthusiast and friend of CEO Jeff Bezos, told The Dallas Morning News.

“Dallas is a great city for business, but UTD (UT-Dallas) and SMU and UTA (UT-Arlington) are really our only schools that develop STEM talent at the college level. And that’s the challenge, right?”

Right. For all its status as a magnet for corporate campuses, its well-developed infrastructure, world-class airports and on and on, the region comes up a little light in the higher education column. Compared to other major American cities, Dallas stands out precisely for not having a top tier tech-focused university in its core.

Coincidentally, before it ultimately won a piece of Amazon’s HQ2, New York City took the measure of its higher education and found it wanting. In 2010, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was concerned that the city needed to be more competitive in research science, so he began a global competition to attract a “new, state-of-the-art applied sciences research school.”

New York City offered public land and $100 million dollars to whichever university made the winning proposal. More than two dozen institutions from around the world, including Cornell, Columbia and Stanford — submitted pitches in the headline-grabbing challenge.

Under then-president John Hennessy, Stanford had campaigned hard to win the project with ambitious plans for a $2.5 billion, 1.9 million-square-foot campus, but the university abruptly pulled out of the competition in December 2011. In the end, a partnership between Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won the competition, and Cornell Tech opened on Roosevelt Island in 2017.

Stanford — Dallas?

Before someone throws those boxes marked “HQ2 proposal” up on a dusty shelf in a warehouse, the city needs to realize the opportunity it still has. The hard work of identifying high-impact building sites and developing a robust incentive plan — reportedly about $1.1 billion — is done. And the goal of attracting a global brand that would forever change the trajectory of the city and region remains within grasp.

But that brand should be Stanford University.

While it might seem like a stretch that Dallas could convince Stanford to open an applied sciences program here, there’s a legitimate case to be made. After California, Texas sends more students to Stanford than any other state. Then, too, there is the obvious benefit Stanford would gain in having closer access to a wealth of Texas donors. Already Fort Worth’s Robert Bass, who holds an MBA from Stanford, is one of the university’s largest benefactors.

An urban campus in Dallas also would solve a problem for Stanford. Its campus in California is “the farm,” a nickname that captures its suburban locale, near Silicon Valley firms but a bit far from the action in San Francisco. The NYC campus was going to ameliorate that and give the university a large presence in a major city.

Dallas would provide Stanford’s researchers and graduates with a fast-growing, broad-based economy thirsty for ideas and talent. The area has a huge concentration of companies in telecom, finance, transportation and logistics, energy, healthcare and more — all incessantly being reshaped by technology. And the prestigious Texas Academy of Math and Science up the road in Denton would provide a robust feeder to the program.

When Stanford walked away from the NYC competition, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the university was unhappy that New York was beginning to impose new conditions that would drive up the costs of building a new campus. In Dallas, it’s unlikely that would happen.

If Dallas ultimately could not entice Stanford to set up here, then it should take NYC’s example and launch a competition. Many of the top universities that fought for New York’s tech campus would be a great fit here: Columbia, New York University, the University of Toronto and other top international universities. Maybe Dallas transplant and Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban could help attract Carnegie Mellon to open a satellite campus.

The Competition Isn’t Over

There is a common belief that the Silicon Valley, having grown too pricey and — many argue — too insular, will not always be the dominant force it is now. Other cities and regions have set their sites on competing to become the next global tech hub.

“The Valley’s big challenge is it has to solve its core infrastructure problems, housing and transportation,” Hennessy told The San Jose Mercury News earlier this year. “If it doesn’t solve them, somewhere else in the world is eventually going to rise to be a new center for technology that’s at least going to challenge the Valley for its leadership position.”

It’s probably no great coincidence that Amazon’s new Long Island City operations will be just a stone’s throw from Cornell Tech’s new campus on Roosevelt Island.

And New York City isn’t standing still. In October, the city unveiled plans to partner with several universities to create a new Global Cyber Center, a SoHo-based Innovation Hub, a Facebook-partnered master’s program, and other initiatives meant to create as many as 10,000 jobs in cyber security.

In Washington D.C., the other area that won an Amazon campus, there has been talk of the need to add an internationally recognized STEM-focused center of higher education to enhance its tech stature.

So before Dallas leaders file away those carefully crafted pans for a major campus in the city, they need to remember that Stanford has its own box with plans for a big idea that never materialized: “NYC Tech campus.”

“If you have the brain power, you can do great things,” John Hennessy has said. “If you don’t, it’s not going to work.”