Sunday, May 20, 2018
Business

Trigaux: Promise our firstborns? Metros go wild in pursuit of Amazon HQ2

I truly wonder if Amazon and billionaire founder Jeff Bezos fathomed what they were about to unleash when the Seattle retail juggernaut announced publicly that it was inviting pitches from larger (and not so large) metros across the United States and Canada.

The goal: To claim the ultimate bragging rights as the new site for Amazon's second headquarters.

It's called Amazon HQ2. And for the now hyperventilating world of metropolitan area economic developers, site selectors and business and political leaders, the pursuit of HQ2 may rank up there as the Economic Holy Grail.

Becoming the home of HQ2, you need to realize, is not just some heavyweight business recruitment event. Nor is it simply, as one newspaper's named it, "the mother of all bidding wars."

It is a metropolitan anointing.

Already, we see dozens upon dozens of metros on steroids, employing a one-upmanship in marketing muscle, financial preening and political machismo.

First we have a bevy of metros that all claim to have established "war rooms' whose sole mission is to figure out the right mojo to convince Amazon to come their way.

Detroit's war room has some 40 folks around the clock in a quest lead by Quicken Loans founder and city savior Dan Gilbert. "Amazon HQ2 Team Pittsburgh" — as it has been dubbed — operates its war room out of office space in Two PNC Plaza Downtown donated by the bank. Even Tulsa's got one.

Some metros feel obligated to throw their hat into the HQ2 ring even if they are not at the best at the moment. Gary, In., says it's in the game even as it fights Rust Belt fatigue. St. Louis says it should be The One, suggesting to Amazon its arrival would serve as a renaissance to a metro area hard hit by racial tensions.

Tucson gets the early novelty award by sending Bezos the city's trademark saguaro cactus as a gift. It was returned. But probably not forgotten.

Best yet (or most absurd), a new town born in 2016 and named Stonecrest in the Atlanta suburbs has offered to change its name to Amazon and will pony up 345 free acres for HQ2.

PAST COVERAGE: Tampa joins most competitive pursuit — to capture Amazon's new HQ2.

All this and much, much more around the country is viewed with shock, awe and some amusement by Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. CEO Craig Richard. In a salute to Florida's recent battle with Mother Nature, he calls the race of HQ2 our "Hurricane Amazon." It's a CAT 6 event, he says, looking for new ways to grasp its scope.

"This is like putting together a bid for the Super Bowl in three weeks," says Richard.

Thirty — maybe 35 — metro areas are really big enough in population, airport reach and talent bench to really compete for Amazon HQ2, Richard says. That includes Tampa Bay. Of course.

But Richard estimates as many as 200 proposals may be submitted to Amazon, so intense is the desire by metros, cities and wannabe suburbs to say they are players in the Amazon tournament.

The process already has been picked apart by so-called "armchair site selectors" who have done their own analyses and decided where HQ2 belongs. It's Denver. Nope, New York. Must be Austin, right?

In Florida alone, Richard fully expects separate bids to come from South Florida, Orlando and Jacksonville.

Clever Amazon is basically forcing metro areas like Dallas-Fort Worth and yes, Tampa Bay, to work regionally and submit one single proposal per metro to Amazon. That's why the Tampa/ Hillsborough EDC is now working with the Pinellas County and the young St. Petersburg EDCs. Richard may answer to Hillsborough and pitch sites in Tampa, just as Pinellas and St. Pete look at the Tropicana site, (which includes where the Tampa Bay Rays play, for now) as their best location.

RELATED COVERAGE: Pinellas, Hillsborough join forces to enter Amazon bidding war.

Richard wonders if this will change the parochial and hush-hush nature of job recruiting and encourage more regional cooperation and transparency.

At the least, he says this remarkable Amazon exercise is putting Florida economic development under a more favorable spotlight after a grueling period when the Florida Legislature bad-mouthed job recruiting efforts as "corporate welfare" and proceeded to gut state funding used for providing job incentives.

May the best metro (in Amazon's eye) win.

Better hurry, all you metros! The deadline for submitting a formal proposal to Amazon is Oct. 19.

Tick tock.

There will be only one metro winner, of course. But — good gravy — this is a winner-take-all gift. Wherever HQ2 lands, Amazon will invest $5 billion in its second headquarters, hire close to 50,000 workers, and stretch over more office space than the Pentagon. At first, HQ2 wants to occupy 500,000 square feet of space by 2019 and up to 8 million square feet beyond 2027.

No, Tampa Bay's not sending Bezos a palm tree. He's seen one, having grown up in Miami. Nope, no hamlet in this metro area is volunteering to change its name.

And no, there's no "war room" here, at least by that name. Still, Richard says close to 100 people are working on the HQ2 proposal — and many more indirectly.

Tampa Bay will submit a proposal heavy on videos, social media and storytelling provided by a range of bay area people. Some are business and political bigwigs but others are not.

Richard points to places like North Carolina and Texas that have suffered harsh backlashes for laws governing who can use which bathrooms and other actions that question their commitments to diversity. Amazon likes diversity, Richard believes, and that can only help Tampa Bay.

Why on earth is Amazon even seeking a second headquarters of mammoth size?

In the end, it seems to come down to the search for talent. Amazon recognizes it will have huge demands in the decades ahead for tech savvy and talented workers. And demand for such workers in Seattle already is intense.

Tampa Bay hits no home runs in this arena but it is growing and trying hard.

Short term, Richard reminds me, Tampa Bay's goal is not to get picked for the HQ2 but rather simply not get eliminated from the list of possibilities. Amazon will sift through all the proposals and, presumably, start winnowing the list until Amazon site selection teams can personally come up with their handful of finalists. That, at least in traditional economic development thinking, is when Bezos and perhaps a few other top execs will visit to take their own measures of these elite communities.

"Whatever ultimately motivates Amazon's decision, the HQ2 project represents a once in a lifetime opportunity that will be transformational for the city that is fortunate enough to win," write Brookings experts Brad McDearman and Ryan Donahue this month.

Amazon has said only that final decision will happen in 2018.

Until then —good luck, Tampa Bay. There's already some good for this area that's come from this regional rallying.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

 
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