LAWRENCE — Standing in the parking lot of a shuttered Showcase Cinema theater, one would need an active imagination to think Jeff Bezos would pick this site to build a sprawling new headquarters for Amazon.
Sure, the old theater sits in a great location off of Interstate 495, and you can have your fill of pancakes at the Denny’s next door. But really?
“There is a moonshot feel to it,” acknowledged Mayor Dan Rivera, who last week drove me around in his silver Saturn SUV, showing off potential sites.
Implausible as Lawrence’s prospects may seem, Rivera articulated what is on the minds of small-town mayors preparing bids.
“If we don’t have people look this way,” Rivera said, “when will they?”
By my count, more than a dozen cities and towns in Massachusetts, including New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester, are exploring or planning a bid for what one pundit has called the “Olympics of corporate relocations.” The prize: Seattle-based Amazon investing $5 billion in a second corporate hub that could eventually employ 50,000 people.
Boston is considered a top national contender, given the tech giant’s preference for a metropolitan area with public transit, an international airport, a highly educated workforce, and a business-friendly environment. With several strong sites in the city, it can be difficult for other locales in the Commonwealth to be taken seriously. But moonshot or not, the state can’t afford to bet just on Boston. Who really knows what Bezos, the Amazon CEO, wants? In the end, the best proposal may be a regional one.
The Baker administration is expected to submit an application that will make the case for an Amazon headquarters in Massachusetts, while leaving cities and towns to make their own bids. Bidders have until Oct. 19 to file a proposal, and that has sent mayors and governors across the country tripping over themselves to woo Amazon, in a manner reminiscent of how cities used to compete for the Olympics (before many realized the costs just weren’t worth it). Bostonians know a lot about that after the implosion of the city’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games, which was awarded earlier this month to Paris.
Put some of Massachusetts’ smaller cities in other parts of the country and they wouldn’t be afterthoughts. So what’s going on is that mayors — those not named Marty Walsh — are hoping for a halo effect of just being in the same state as Boston. Worcester, for example, would like to be part of a proposal. It can’t meet all of Amazon’s needs but has a couple of downtown sites in mind that could supplement a proposal, including the Gateway Park project, anchored by Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
No one from around here would ever mistake Worcester for Boston, but if Amazon wants a cheaper alternative, New England’s second-largest city would like to be it. A report released in March by TechNet and the Progressive Policy Institute ranked Worcester eighth among the top 25 emerging startup hubs in the United States, one notch below Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
“Worcester makes a lot of sense,” said a former lieutenant governor, Tim Murray, who now runs the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and has been helping with the city’s Amazon proposal.
Murray reminds me that Boston doesn’t have a monopoly on higher education. Worcester is home to 36,000 students and nine colleges and universities, including two known for producing tech talent.
“There are few communities in the country that can provide the most important ingredient — that is workforce and brain power,” Murray said.
New Bedford Mayor Jonathan Mitchell is also exploring a bid in case Amazon decides that it wants to settle in a smaller city. There’s not much public transit (no commuter rail), and it’s hardly known as a tech center. Still, that’s not stopping Mitchell from pitching the virtues of being in New Bedford — no traffic, no housing crunch.
“There is no city in America that will have all of Amazon’s boxes checked,” he reasoned.
One site that the mayor thinks might appeal to Amazon is the 300-acre, city-owned Whaling City Golf Course, slated for redevelopment.
“We can make a very credible proposal involving this site,” Mitchell said. “If we don’t happen to win it, we would have at least had the opportunity to market the site to others who might be interested.”
Closer to Boston, Somerville and Weymouth are jockeying for position. Somerville has Assembly Square, but it won’t be big enough to accommodate all of Amazon, which explains why Mayor Joe Curtatone is pushing for a regional bid. Logical partners? Cambridge and Boston.
“I’m a regionalist at heart,” he tells me. “This is an opportunity to break out of our provincial molds.”
Weymouth, on the other hand, has Union Point, formerly known as Naval Air Station South Weymouth. The 1,500-acre project, which has had its share of fits and starts and change in ownership, may finally be ready for prime time.
Think of the site as South Shore’s answer to Suffolk Downs, a 160-acre property that Boston is touting as a potential site for Amazon.
“We have spent two and half years planning for this moment,” said Kyle Corkum, CEO and managing partner of LStar Ventures, which owns Union Point. “Our vision was that we would be the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.”
Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, does not plan to go it alone in courting Amazon. In fact, after showing me another site in Lawrence — a 14-acre vacant lot owned by the city — he drove across the border to North Andover to Osgood Landing.
That’s the 168-acre parcel along the Merrimack River, the former AT&T/Lucent Technologies manufacturing complex that is the centerpiece of a joint bid by Lawrence, North Andover, and Haverhill. Their press release last week talked up the property with its proximity to Boston (within 30 miles), close to two international airports (Logan and Manchester in New Hampshire), and the opportunity for direct commuter rail.
Still, it’s hard for me to imagine young programmers flocking to work in the Merrimack Valley. Rivera is unfazed and reminds me of what Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini keeps telling everyone: “Whatever our chances are, they are much better if we try than if we do not.”
Jeff Bussgang, a Boston venture capitalist who has been advising Lawrence on economic development issues, said Amazon’s ambition for a headquarters is so big it will be difficult for any one city to host it. It’s not crazy to consider Lawrence because it can provide blue-collar workers, while pulling white-collar workers from surrounding towns such as Andover.
A potential Amazon site “has to represent a diverse set of assets. It can’t be Kendall Square and come on in,” Bussgang said. “The regional strategy is so compelling.”
So what does Amazon want? Only Bezos knows. Who among us could have predicted that General Electric would make an old Necco candy factory its new headquarters.
The best we can do is to make sure Massachusetts vets all of its options, not just the obvious ones. And along the way, we may turn up some surprises.