Articles

While One City Will Lure Amazon's HQ2, the Rest Will Lose Hundreds of Staff Hours

The time and resources put into attracting the internet retailer’s second U.S. headquarters are substantial.

by Sarah Gantz, The Baltimore Sun / October 16, 2017
Mid-town Baltimore, MD. Shutterstock

(TNS) -- With a Thursday deadline looming, state and local officials across the country are putting the final touches on their cities’ bids for Amazon’s coveted $5 billion headquarters and the promise of 50,000 jobs.

Baltimore is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of cities that have collectively spent hundreds of thousands of hours gathering data, cobbling together incentives and crafting a unique pitch on a tight six-week deadline — all to bid on a project that only one will win.

“It’s kind of like this massive poker game and everyone is all in,” said Andy Levine, president of Development Counsellors International, “regardless of what cards they’re holding.”

Amazon sparked the unprecedented nationwide scramble on Sept. 7 when the online retail giant stated publicly that it was seeking a home for a second North American headquarters. Such a public solicitation is rare in the world of economic development where companies usually conduct discreet searches and negotiate in private before announcing big moves.

The Seattle-based company said it wanted a metropolitan area of at least one million people, access to public transit, airports and a workforce from which Amazon can draw 50,000 workers in the coming years.

Levine, whose company provides economic development and tourism consulting for cities, said he thinks a large city, such as Boston, Toronto or Washington, D.C., has the best shot.

But Baltimore officials like the city’s chances so much that they’ve made their bid a top priority for the past five weeks. Elsewhere in the state, Prince George’s and Howard counties also are preparing their own efforts to attract the big prize, and state officials are assembling an incentive package they said will dwarf any other in the state’s history to help land Amazon in Maryland.

“I can’t stress strongly enough how aggressively the administration is going after this project,” said Douglass Mayer, Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief spokesman. “HQ2 represents probably the most dramatic and consequential economic development opportunity very possibly in a generation.”

William H. Cole, the president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., recalled that Mayor Catherine Pugh told him on the morning of Sept. 7, “Let’s do everything humanly possible to make sure Baltimore is considered.”

Given Amazon’s stated preference for at least 100 acres of land where it could build up to 8 million square feet of space, Cole said, the city’s top site was clear: Port Covington.

The 235-acre parcel in South Baltimore is where Sagamore Development, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s private development firm, plans a $5.5 billion project, with office, retail and residential buildings, plus a new campus for the athletic wear brand.

The site, currently home to The Baltimore Sun’s printing plant, has plenty of space to accommodate Amazon and is shovel-ready, having already been through a lengthy city approval process. (Sagamore acquired the Sun’s plant from Chicago-based Tribune Media after it spun off its newspapers, including The Sun, but kept their properties. The Sun has a long-term lease on the building.)

Just a week after the HQ2 announcement, Goldman Sachs, which has served as Amazon’s investment bank, financing the Whole Foods acquisition, for example, invested $233 million to become a partner in Port Covington.

“Baltimore is an attractive city for large and small businesses alike,” said Margaret Anadu, managing director and head of the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs, in response to a request for comment about the Port Covington bid for Amazon. “It has rich history, a strong and diverse workforce and excellent academic institutions.”

At Sagamore Development’s office on Under Armour’s Locust Point campus, the Amazon bid became “our primary focus,” said President Marc Weller.

“[We] not only have the Sagamore Development team working very hard on the proposal, but we have engaged some of the best and brightest creative minds in Baltimore and have gained the full and enthusiastic support from community and business leaders in and around the city,” Weller said in a statement. “We are confident that all of our collective work and energy will result in a fantastic and very compelling proposal and we remain certain that Baltimore and Port Covington is the perfect location for Amazon for a myriad of reasons.”

With Sagamore Development on board, the BDC convened a meeting of city agencies, nonprofits and other stakeholders to delegate tasks and set a schedule for an incredibly tight turnaround.

“We have gotten offers of assistance from virtually every organization in the region,” Cole said. “Lots of companies that do creative work, engineering firms, said anything you need, let us know.”

Mayer declined to discuss specifics or ballpark the value of the state’s incentive package. He said it would include every economic incentive at the state’s disposal and call for legislation for additional economic incentives.

Hogan is briefed multiple times a week, personally reviews and signs off specific incentives and has been working the phones to reach “influential connections,” said Mayer, who declined to say whether Hogan had spoken to Bezos.

While Hogan has said he thinks Baltimore’s Port Covington offers the state’s best chance at landing the project and promised to personally lobby for it, he also committed the state’s resources to any jurisdiction that wants to bid.

Howard County has proposed Columbia Gateway as a site with easy access to Interstate-95. Howard Hughes Corp., the master developer of downtown Columbia, is submitting its own proposal to turn Columbia’s core into Amazon’s new headquarters.

Prince George’s County plans to offer up sites in College Park, Greenbelt and New Carrollton.

Shortly after Amazon sent out its call for proposals, at least 40 people from various public agencies and private development firms convened at the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp. in a conference room labeled WAR ROOM.

Over the course of three or four hours they went through, line by line, the data points and details needed, and delegated each to committees and subcommittees, said David Iannucci, senior economic development adviser to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Since then, the groups have been in constant contact with each other.

Iannucci estimated that between 85 percent and 90 percent of his time is dedicated to Amazon, including the past two weekends he spent pouring over data and reports filed by committees, line editing and sending them back with questions.

Back in Baltimore, the city and Sagamore Development also delegated tasks to expedite the process.

The Johns Hopkins University was tasked with detailing the region’s strength in research and development, and ability to attract and retain top talent.

Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures took the lead, reaching out to all the university’s schools, plus the medical system and off-campus institutions. Top brass, including University President Ronald J. Daniels, Hospital and Health System President Ronald R. Peterson and Ralph Semmel, director of Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, all played a role, said Elizabeth Smyth, senior director of strategic initiatives at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures.

“Everyone was excited to contribute,” Smyth said, “From top to bottom.”

The University System of Maryland spent an intense week to 10 days pulling together an exhaustive report on enrollment and degrees awarded, with special attention to the types of skills Amazon will be seeking in its 50,000 new employees, said J. Thomas Sadowski Jr., the university system’s vice chancellor for economic development.

The university system routinely tracks enrollment and degrees across its institutions, but in the report compiled for Amazon, “we got infinitely more granular,” Sadowski said.

“There were a couple guys in Adelphi who really busted their tails to put it together until there was nothing left to question,” Sadowski said. “They pushed everything aside for a good four to five days to crunch the numbers the way they needed to be.”

To sweeten the pot, the university system’s board voted earlier this month to waive a 12-month residency requirement to qualify for in-state tuition for any Amazon employees who moved to the state — if the new headquarters is established here.

As the work comes to a close and the city puts the finishing touches on its proposal, Cole said the effort was worth it.

“It’s not just a matter of Amazon choosing Port Covington,” Cole said. “Landing this opportunity would be transformational not just for that particular site, but sites throughout the region and state.”

©2017 The Baltimore Sun Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.