In the Amazon race, then there were eight
And now the race is on.
At least 150 cities — from San Diego, Calif., to Brunswick, Maine, made their pitch last week to woo Amazon’s “second headquarters,” with its promise of 50,000 tech jobs and $5 billion worth of investment.
For most, that will be the end of it. Amazon isn’t going to Leominster, and probably not Louisville. The company needs more people, and more resources, than most small cities can offer.
But for a relative handful of urban areas with the right mix of tech talent, transportation options, education and population, the bids that were due Thursday are just the beginning of a process that will likely stretch on for months.
Amazon hasn’t detailed exactly how it will pick its second home, but experts in site selection expect the company will boil down the hundreds of initial proposals to a short list, and dig deeper from there. Boston is widely considered a strong contender to make at least that first cut.
What other places will move on to the next round?
It’s hard to say for sure, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Since Amazon kicked off this feeding frenzy six weeks ago, urbanists, journalists, and tech and economic development types of all stripes have weighed in with their prospective short lists. We found 16 such lists that applied some rigorous analysis, from the New York Times to Moody’s Analytics, and mashed them together to come up with a plausible list of top contenders.
In all, these self-proclaimed experts pegged 26 cities as having a shot, but eight stood out, appearing on at least half of the lists. One of those was Boston, where the Walsh administration is pitching the region’s universities and skilled workforce and a campus at Suffolk Downs. Indeed, only Atlanta appeared on more of the lists than Boston. Then came Denver, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, and Toronto. Most of the rest were at least a few rungs lower.
Based on that, we’ll call these eight cities the conventional favorites.
Each filed a bid last week. Most touted a talented workforce and easy air connections, and pitched spots urban enough to be interesting but with enough open land for Amazon to build its own mini-city. All say they can meet the demands Amazon spells out in its seven-page request for proposals.
But there are lots of requirements in that document, some in conflict with each other. Amazon is asking for the moon, said Lawrence Moretti, a consultant who works with companies on site selection. What it truly values — and needs — is not yet clear.
“Nobody really knows what their goal is. Nobody really knows what their timeframe is,” Moretti said. “I keep coming back to talent.”
That bodes well for Boston, but also for Washington, D.C. and Toronto, which also rank among the best-educated metro areas in North America. If Amazon leader Jeff Bezos wants to rub shoulders with other corporate titans, Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas have them in spades. And if it’s quality of life they’re after, Denver and Austin rank high in that category.
Of course, Amazon could spring a surprise. Some experts believe it will choose a mid-sized metro area where land and labor don’t cost so much. Cincinnati made one list. So did Rochester, N.Y. Maybe the company will throw a real curveball and pick Leominster after all. Jeff Bezos didn’t get where he is by thinking inside a logo-splattered box.
“At the end, the winner is going to surface and the offer will be publicized,” said veteran site selection consultant Angelos Angelou. “And everyone is going to understand why.”
Here’s a look at the top eight contenders.
PROS: UPS, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot call Atlanta home. Why not Amazon? With its white-collar workforce, world-class airport and relatively low costs, Atlanta does the corporate headquarters thing better than most cities. Throw in a sizable logistics industry and a great engineering school in Georgia Tech, and Jeff Bezos could come down to Georgia.
CONS: Sprawl. If Amazon wants a campus plugged into the city, it may go elsewhere. Traffic is brutal, transit is lacking, and K-12 schools in Georgia are not as strong as some other top contenders’ systems.
PROS It’s a vibrant tech town with a smart workforce and one of the nation’s biggest and best public universities. Housing costs are modest compared with many coastal cities. And Amazon’s newest acquisition — Whole Foods — is headquartered there.
CONS At 2 million people, Austin is the smallest metro area on this list and already wrestles with stifling traffic. Can it absorb Amazon? Also, its airport, while “international,” doesn’t offer many overseas flights.
PROS Smart, young workforce? Check. Big sites near downtown? Yup. Major airport and viable transit system? Got it. Denver checks nearly all of the boxes Amazon sets up in its RFP, and boasts 300 days of sunshine a year — for when execs need a break from that Seattle gloom.
CONS Geographically, and culturally, Denver might be too close to Seattle for a company that’s looking to diversify its employee base. While Colorado has an educated workforce, it lacks the elite universities most of the other elite contenders boast.
PROS If Amazon wants a big city in the middle of America, Chicago’s hard to beat. It’s a headquarters town, with deep roots in retail and logistics, and a growing tech scene. It’s also got some cool sites to offer, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is rolling out the red carpet.
CONS City and state finances are a basket case, which could ding education funding or lead to higher taxes down the road. Chicago’s economy has been relatively sluggish of late and its reputation for deep bureaucracy could keep Amazon away.
PROS Cities don’t get more business-friendly than the Big D, which has an impressive roster of corporate headquarters and sites galore to offer up. Like Washington state, Texas has no income tax, which would save Amazonians some cash. Texas also has a history of going all-in on incentives to lure major employers.
CONS Some say Amazon wants to be on the East Coast. Dallas schools aren’t at quite the same level of some others in this group of eight. If “community fit” is indeed a high priority, Jeff Bezos may not choose a red state that’s often at ground zero in the culture wars.
PROS If Amazon desires a globally connected city with quality schools and a growing tech industry, it might look north of the border. Toronto’s got all of that. As a bonus for Bezos, he could send a clear message to President Trump about the costs of restrictive immigration policies.
CONS Crossing the border for a second headquarters could get complicated, and most of Amazon’s sales, employees, and suppliers are in the United States. Toronto, too, has felt the effects of surging housing prices, and it’s feeling the squeeze of rapid growth.
PROS A major market with a smart workforce, the nation’s capital has a lot of potential appeal for Amazon, from well-regarded education institutions to a (generally) pleasant quality of life, plus access to political movers and shakers. What’s more, Bezos owns a $23 million mansion in D.C., as well as The Washington Post.
CONS D.C.’s kind of a one-industry town. How would a tech titan fit in culturally? It’s expensive, too — no cheaper than Seattle (or Boston). And competing bids from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of the Columbia could muddy the metro area’s appeal.