Pinellas, Hillsborough join forces to enter Amazon bidding war

Amazon announced Sept. 7 that it has opened the search for a second headquarters, promising to spend more than $5 billion on the opening. [AP file Photo/Richard Drew
Amazon announced Sept. 7 that it has opened the search for a second headquarters, promising to spend more than $5 billion on the opening. [AP file Photo/Richard Drew
Published Sept. 27, 2017

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will join forces in an effort to convince Amazon to build a new world headquarters in the Tampa Bay area.

ROBERT TRIGAUX: Tampa joins most competitive pursuit — to capture Amazon's new HQ2 (Sept. 8, 2017)

The nation's largest retailer wants to build a second campus — outside of its current headquarters in Seattle — in a region with more than 1 million people. That has launched a nationwide bidding war between cities and even states to land the online giant's second headquarters, known as HQ2.

Bay area officials acknowledge the region is not a frontrunner.

Pinellas County Economic Development Director Mike Meidel told the Pinellas County Commission Tuesday that both counties will partner with the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa in what is admittedly a long-shot effort to lure one of the richest companies in the world.

"This has never happened before," Meidel said about Amazon's search. "They are staging a beauty contest, essentially. We will submit a single proposal for the Tampa Bay area. That is huge."

"That's massive," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times. "We're going to give it our best shot."

The locations being discussed include the 85-acre site of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and the 40-acres that Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment capital fund have assembled at the southern end of downtown Tampa.

The land around Tropicana Field is the best Pinellas site because its publicly owned and could accommodate large towers, Meidel said. Whether the Tampa Bay Rays build a new stadium in St. Petersburg or Tampa, the city still plans to redevelop the Trop site.

Tampa has less room and options to work with. A site there could require utilizing the 45 acres that the Tampa Port Authority owns near the Channel District. Tampa officials could also look at whether its worth trying to move the ConAgra flour mill, Buckhorn said, so that an Amazon campus could maximize connections with downtown, Ybor City and the Channel District waterfront.

Amazon wants the proposals by Oct. 19. Some of their other requirements include a business-friendly environment with proximity to an international airport. Any proposal must have enough land to build 8 million square feet of office space.

The company said average compensation for its workers would be about $100,000 annually. Amazon plans to spend more than $5 billion to build its new campus over the next 15 to 17 years.

Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. CEO Craig Richard said he could not discuss any details about the region's joint bid, but said regional cooperation could give the bay area an advantage over more competitive areas.

"Regional proposals are generally viewed more favorably than individual city bids," he said. "Perhaps we can develop a model by which we can collaborate and work regionally more often. I think it just makes our region more competitive when we do that."

Local officials must act fast to present a plan to the state by Oct. 9. The state will then complete revenue forecasts and offer equal incentives for any region in Florida submitting a plan. In South Florida, groups in Miami and Fort Lauderdale are joining forces to submit a bid, and bids are also expected from Jacksonville and Orlando.

But it could get expensive. Buckhorn anticipated that Gov. Rick Scott would have to ask for "tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars" in state economic development incentives to attract Amazon to Florida.

"If we ever were to get that, that's going to change a city overnight," Buckhorn said. "For the mid-sized, emerging cities, the Pittsburghs and the Nashvilles, if you put it in there, it's going to be a game changer."

The biggest hurdle facing the Tampa Bay region may be the lack of a regional transportation system, which other metropolitan areas in the running already have.

"The response will have to address (that shortcoming)," Meidel said. Pinellas voters defeated a 1-cent sales tax to pay for transportation needs in 2014. Last year, the Hillsborough County Commission wouldn't even let a similar referendum go before its voters.

Still, bay area officials are excited to join the national competition.

"Even if we make the short list that's a good thing for us," Buckhorn said. "Six, seven, eight, nine years ago, you never would have seen Tampa on a list like that."

Added Meidel: "If we make the short list, it's huge (public relations).