OXFORD, England - I was thrilled to see Indy make the list of finalists being considered for Amazon’s second corporate headquarters (HQ2). Like many across the city, I began salivating at the prospect of 50,000 high-paying jobs and an influx of dynamic and diverse citizens. And I love what our shortlisting represents: Conviction among city and state leaders that we can run with the big dogs and vindication from one of the world’s most powerful companies that, yes, in this sense, we can.

But these bright prospects haven’t kept me from having a few worries, too. Pursuing a prize this big carries risks – for Indy, and for the other cities involved in the incentive-based competition that the HQ2 sweepstakes has ignited.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, urban studies scholar Richard Florida voices perhaps the most common concern. Florida takes issue with the lavish incentive packages cities have been offering Amazon – most in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. There’s no good in offering “corporate welfare” to a wealthy company, he argues. Cities like Indy “should say no to this kind of reverse Robin Hood.”

Florida doesn’t address the fact that, if successful, Indy would be compensated with a significant new source of tax revenue – how much compensation, however, is precisely the question. If Indy offers a fortune and Amazon underwhelms, we have a problem.

This worry gets at the larger mechanics of what’s at stake in this inter-city incentive war and reveals the importance of distinguishing good competition from bad. Politicians often talk as if all competition is good, but the reality is different. It’s true that competition among cities is often highly beneficial; citizens’ and businesses’ ability to “vote with their feet” by moving encourages cities to provide the best services they can. It’s a great strength of America’s federal system that cities and states can engage in just this sort of constructive competition.

But not all competition takes this form. Economists have long recognized that when local governments compete for scarce capital, they risk running a race to the bottom. Each city is pressured by the others to up the ante – ensuring maximal benefits for the pursued company and minimal payback for the winning city.

In pursuing HQ2, Indy finds itself implicated in such a potentially damaging contest. Critics of Amazon’s competitive search process like Richard Florida say mayors should band together in a “mutual nonaggression pact” that limits the incentive packages offered. And, failing that, Indy should withdraw rather than suffer the indignity of being an expensively dressed guest at another city’s red carpet event.

I disagree. 

Entering inter-city incentive competitions won’t always be in our interest, but this opportunity is simply too big to pass up. Snagging HQ2 would transform Indy.

But while we should pursue Amazon, we must be clear-eyed about what we are doing. We shouldn’t get caught up in the frenzy of incentive-giving for its own sake, and we should be fiscally responsible about what we offer.

Most importantly, though, we must ensure our bid fits into a larger vision of what we want our city to become. Positioning Indy as an attractive option has already accelerated conversations about serious issues we need to address. We need better public transit. We need ambitious urban planning that invites the creative class while minimizing disruption to those who have called Indy home for decades. We need to carefully think how the addition of thousands of white-collar jobs could contribute to shared prosperity and growth that is truly inclusive.

So, the best way for Indy to pursue HQ2 is to use it as an opportunity to think seriously – and strategically – about our long-term future. That’s the only way we’ll be primed when Amazon – or the next big opportunity – comes knocking. ϖ

Jay Ruckelshaus is a Rhodes Scholar from Indianapolis and a graduate student in politics at the University of Oxford.