Yes, there is life after HQ2 – if we’re smart about it

Gone baby: A grassroots local resistance forced Amazon's hand on its HQ2 plans -- but Long Island's future doesn't die with the canceled expansion strategy, according to business-incubation expert Phil Rugile.
By PHIL RUGILE //

With the Amazon pullout from Queens, politicians and businesspeople are apoplectic about our future. Well, hold on – when life throws you lemons, time to make lemonade. Maybe with vodka.

The reality is, we are still in growth mode and we need innovation spaces more than ever. Labor Department data shows an overall increase in jobs, though many business owners will tell you finding talent is their biggest growth challenge – so, in the context of talent recruiting, maybe we dodged a bullet here.

This is not about jobs, per se. But it is about economic strategies – more to the point, one specific strategy.

What we really lost with Amazon was a chance to profit – over the long term – from the long tail of a retail/tech giant. Large companies need lots of external support in products and services, and Amazon is big.

But it’s not developing a water-to-hydrogen power-conversion technology – we are, right here on Long Island, as Jeff Guillot mentioned here last week. Nor is it developing new composite materials; other Long Island-based innovators are doing that.

This is where we shine. From the dawn of Grumman to now, we’ve supported a suburban environment rich in business resources both small (component manufacturing) and large (healthcare services), with a cost of doing business considerably lower than anything you’ll find in Manhattan and the other boroughs.

A population of over 2 million with skills and expertise ranging from complex welding to pharmaceutical invention and every e-commerce software application in between. Sure, we have blemishes – no one’s perfect – but I’m sure you’d agree that looking in from the outside, most national business interests would see that and say we are awesome.

Phil Rugile: Co-working networks needed now, more than ever.

The issue, then, is growth. Amazon is “sort of” gone (they did say they will continue to hire in the city), and because of how that all played out, other large firms may take a harder look before expanding here.

But there is no shortage of other coattails to ride in the metropolitan area. We simply need to do a better job communicating what we offer while continuing to build out an innovation-oriented economy to draw the elephant’s attention.

In a dream Amazon scenario, hundreds of Long Island SMBs would pitch HQ2 for short- and long-term contracts, deals that would spur regional financial and job growth. To keep the engine fed, we’d need to provide more street-level opportunities for innovation, training and investment.

Strategically located co-working spaces would be tremendously important to that scenario – magnets for talent, a network of collaborative spaces with operating agreements that allow tenants across the Island and elsewhere to utilize on-demand spaces and better access partners and resources.

I’m not talking about slick WeWork spaces where the focus is on desk rentals, not necessarily company-building  but all-encompassing sites backed by all the stakeholders, providing business and educational tools and access to startup capital. LaunchPad on steroids, and great examples of how government, education and industry can work together to generate innovation and economic expansion.

Scalable models can be found in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Northland Workforce Training Center, which both represent a new and vitally important path for economic growth and workforce sustainability. And I love the presentation at BNY, the self-titled “Home of Urban Manufacturing” where potential clients are invited to “Work at the Yard.”

Long Island needs a scalable “innovation network,” led by industry requirements and marketed with the same gusto – the same way we market tourism, only focused on attracting resource-hungry up-and-comers from New York City and beyond, with state-of-the-art and price-competitive products. We need to look at innovation outside of the confines of scientific laboratories and industry-specific incubators, with a network of sites along our 200-mile Island tied to both industry and education. What an amazing way to accelerate startup growth.

What we don’t need are more “industry advisory committees” that meet four times per year and have no real accountability. We need leaders whose own success is integrally tied to building an innovation pipeline – a roll-up-your-sleeves group with real deadlines tied to private and government investment, and a program run like a business itself.

There are folks out there ready to do this. The conversations have started. My hope is we will see some tangible movement forward over the next few years.

So, raise your glass of vodka-ade to Amazon’s here-and-gone HQ2 if you must. I’m toasting our future economic growth.

Phil Rugile is the director of Launchpad Huntington and a consultant on corporate innovation and workforce-development programs. Reach him at phil@launchpadhuntington.com.