Business

Questions on Amazon bids met with silence, as 50,000 jobs hang in the balance

Amazon held a job fair at the Hilton Hotel in Boston in late 2017.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Amazon held a job fair at the Hilton Hotel in Boston in late 2017.

The first rule of the contest to land Amazon’s second headquarters is that you don’t talk about Amazon’s second headquarters. At least not in public.

In the weeks since Boston and Somerville, along with 19 other North American cities and regions, were named as finalists for the planned $8 billion campus, a cone of silence has descended around a potential deal that would likely transform the city.

City and state officials working on Boston’s bid have turned down repeated requests to talk about what they have discussed with the Seattle company, which says it will pick the winner later this year. Questions about a recent visit by Amazon officials to Suffolk Downs — and maybe other local sites, but no one will say — weren’t answered by City Hall. Requests for public records about the project have been denied.

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Even normally chatty developers go silent when the biggest name in e-commerce comes up.

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Apparently, the promise of as many as 50,000 jobs and a massive construction project buys a lot of cooperation with Amazon’s demand for tight lips.

Boston is hardly alone in its discretion. Officials from New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles are keeping their cards close to the vest, with a few, such as Pittsburgh, even fighting in court to keep their proposals private.

But the silence here is a marked contrast to the highly public process that launched after Amazon announced its so-called HQ2 search in September. As the contest has gotten serious, it has moved behind closed doors. And that worries observers across the political spectrum, from housing advocates who are concerned Amazon could swamp the region’s housing market to economists concerned about overly generous tax breaks.

“The public doesn’t really know what’s going on here,” said Greg Sullivan, a former Massachusetts inspector general who is now research director at the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank in Boston. “A process like this should be much more transparent.”

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The radio silence is driven partly by Amazon, which has said little since naming the finalists in late January. It asked each contender to sign a nondisclosure agreement shielding any private information it shares with them. But the decision to remain completely quiet is largely a strategic choice made by Boston, Somerville, and state officials, who don’t want to do anything that could alienate Amazon, or give competitors an advantage by revealing significant details about their proposals.

Mark Williams, a veteran site selection consultant and president of the Site Selectors Guild, a trade group, said the silent treatment makes sense.

“A lot of these things really do need to be discussed privately,” Williams said. “They can’t be vetted in the public domain.”

Corporate site searches are typically conducted behind the scenes, through third-party consultants like Williams who are hired to study locations discreetly before negotiating with a few finalists. Most don’t want to tip off competitors, scare employees, or drive up the price of real estate they might be considering, Williams said.

Nondisclosure agreements in these situations are standard, and sometime the projects are given code names, adding to the mystery. For example, state officials dubbed General Electric’s 2015 headquarters search “Project Plum.”

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Often it’s only when the deal is done that a company’s move is made known — as was the case with Philips’s recent decision to shift 2,000 jobs from Andover to Cambridge.

Amazon took a far different tack — declaring its vast ambitions to the world on a Thursday morning in September, and then watching as officials in nearly 240 cities salivated over the prospect of wooing the hottest company in the world.

Early on, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker weren’t at a loss for words. They spoke enthusiastically — and on the record — about the local bid, and both posted their formal proposals online in October for all to see, something few top competitors did.

But that openness stopped in January, when Amazon named its finalists.

Within a few days, out went nondisclosure agreements that prohibit bidders from disclosing “confidential information to anyone without Amazon’s prior written consent,” according to copies obtained from Boston and Somerville under the Massachusetts Public Record Law. The document defines confidential as “all non-public information” the company might share in the search process.

It does not, however, bar cities from talking about their role in the process, be it potential sites, incentive offers, or other aspects of plans for an Amazon headquarters.

“This is not a gag order,” said Denise Taylor, a spokeswoman for Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, who signed the agreement last month. “This is really just about protecting their trade secrets.”

Regardless, local officials and developers have declined to answer questions about the process or say how rich an incentive package city and state officials might offer Amazon, though Somerville has maintained it will offer no subsidies. People said to have met with Amazon in Boston last week — including Cambridge Innovation Center founder Tim Rowe — aren’t confirming or denying anything.

A spokeswoman for the Baker administration said it is “standard practice to keep negotiations confidential,” while Somerville economic development director Tom Galligani said in an e-mail that “it’s standard practice for commercial entities to conduct site searches privately, and we always honor that.”

The Walsh administration cited the fierce competition in denying a Globe public records request for a questionnaire Amazon recently sent to Boston and other finalist cities.

Sharing the document, wrote director of public records Shawn Williams, “would put Boston at a disadvantage by permitting other competing communities to see the unique questions posed by Amazon to Boston.”

“Boston fully intends to publicly disclose any completed city submission, proposal or policy response at the appropriate time,” Williams added. “That time has not yet arrived.”

It’s hard to know when it will. Amazon hasn’t decided whether to further trim its list of finalists before picking a winner, a company spokesman said.

But whatever city it chooses will enter a decades-long relationship with one of the world’s most powerful companies. That’s all the more reason to talk through the long-term implications now, said Liam Kerr, one of the leaders of the campaign against Boston’s 2024 Olympics bid.

“We need to have a clear-eyed understanding of how this could play out, over a generation,” said Kerr, who noted there is far broader public support – himself included – for Boston’s Amazon bid than there was for the Olympics. “I hope people start fleshing out a little more what this looks like two or three turns down the road.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.