From the Blue Line to a bookstore: How Boston wooed Amazon’s HQ2
The high-water mark of Boston’s unsuccessful bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters came on a brisk Monday in early March, beginning with coffee in the Eagle Room at Boston City Hall and ending with oysters and steak at More Than Words, a nonprofit bookstore and job-training center in the South End.
Along the way that day, a team of 10 Amazon executives met with local tech CEOs, lunched with then-Harvard University president Drew Faust, rode the Blue Line, and took a water taxi from East Boston to downtown. The next morning, they swung through Dudley Square and visited Assembly Row before heading to the airport by lunchtime.
The day-and-a-half visit — detailed in a trove of newly disclosed e-mails discussing Boston’s courtship of Amazon — left city and state officials believing they had made a good impression. But it was not a game-changer. After the Amazon team departed, City Hall didn’t hear much more about the so-called HQ2 until the November morning Amazon announced it would split the project — and up to 50,000 high-paying jobs — between New York City and Arlington County, Va.
The e-mails, and a lengthy survey filled out for Amazon by the city, include few major revelations about Boston’s effort. In their pitch, state and local officials worked together closely, promoted the region’s universities and educated workforce, and — unlike most other cities involved in the chase — offered no tax breaks beyond what is available to any large employer expanding here.
But the documents, obtained by the Globe through a public records request, open a window into the high-stakes endeavor, providing a glimpse of how Boston positions itself to compete for Amazon and other blue-chip employers looking for places to grow.
After Boston and Somerville last year jointly made the short list of 20 cities that Amazon would seriously consider for its second headquarters, local economic development officials expected a scouting team would come to town. But they didn’t know when until the evening of Feb. 19, when Holly Sullivan, an Amazon executive in charge of the search, e-mailed Boston’s economic development chief, John Barros, with a date: March 5.
“We prefer that our visit not draw much public attention and be focused on substantive issues related to your [proposal],” wrote Sullivan, who asked to meet with a few local CEOs and education leaders. She also requested tours of Suffolk Downs, downtown Boston, and “Sommerville.”
For two weeks, local officials furiously planned for what they knew would be their best shot to impress the e-commerce giant. Barros and then-state Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash lined up leaders of the fantasy sports company DraftKings and the cybersecurity firm Rapid7 to talk tech hiring with Amazon officials at City Hall, according to draft agendas. They set up a lunch at the UMass Club, with its panoramic city views from atop One Beacon Street. Faust, Boston University president Robert Brown, and University of Massachusetts president Marty Meehan were invited.
Amazon asked everyone to sign a nondisclosure agreement, to keep the effort — code-named “Project Millie” — hush-hush.
There were important decisions to make that could influence how Amazon thought about Boston, including which faces and personalities to put in front of Amazon’s team. Officials prioritized business leaders and educators over politicians — neither Governor Charlie Baker nor Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh met personally with Amazon representatives — and made a point of visiting a new high school in Roxbury that focuses on technology.
Then there were basic logistics to sort out, like what to feed the visitors from Seattle and how to show them as much of Boston as was practical in a short amount of time, without getting bogged down in traffic.
“I’m really nervous about Tuesday,” one City Hall staffer wrote at 1:50 a.m. the Friday before the visit, laying out the challenges of getting from Amazon’s downtown hotel — not named in the documents — to Dudley Square to meet with school officials, and then to the roof of the Bolling Municipal Building to see development sites. “Nice view — not enough time,” the staffer wrote.
Boston’s team tried to keep Amazon off tour buses.
“We wanted them walking. We wanted them on the T,” Barros recalled Monday. “We wanted them to experience getting around the way people who live here do.”
That’s how developer Tom O’Brien found himself standing outside of the MBTA’s Government Center Station, 10 Charlie Cards in hand, for a Blue Line trip to show off Suffolk Downs. O’Brien, who had signed the nondisclosure agreement, was hoping to avoid bumping into anyone he knew. It didn’t work out that way.
“I can see the group coming down the steps [at Center Plaza] and then these two friends of mine come by and stop to chat,” O’Brien said Monday. “Real estate brokers. I couldn’t tell them what I was doing. I’m really just trying to shut down the conversation. Finally they left, thank goodness.”
The return trip was a bit easier to keep quiet, with the group riding a water taxi from Logan International Airport to Rowes Wharf and then walking to a downtown office building to meet with executives from the development company Millennium Partners.
Next, they hiked across Fort Point Channel to the penthouse of a Seaport apartment building to hear about buildings there.
Amazon had requested a small gathering for dinner, so Boston officials assembled a handful of local business leaders at More Than Words, which counsels and trains at-risk teenagers by running a bookstore. The choice, Barros said, was a nod to Amazon’s origins as a bookseller.
The dinner tables, remembers the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s president, Jim Rooney, were surrounded by bookshelves, and teens who work with More Than Words served as greeters. Everything was timed to the minute, with oysters on ice at 5:45, according to a schedule. Dessert towers came out at 8.
The vibe was friendly, Rooney said, with the Amazon team — at that point midway through a coast-to-coast tour of potential sites — sounding positive about Boston, but not revealing much about the company’s thinking.
“They said, ‘Hopefully, one [city] emerges out of all of this,’” Rooney recalled.
The next day, after breakfast in Dudley Square and a visit to Assembly Row, Amazon’s contingent headed out of town. The team members working on Boston and Somerville’s bid felt they had done well, but knew there was a long way yet to go.
The visit, however, turned out to be the end of the road for the local bid.
Aside from getting a few phone calls on real estate questions, Boston didn’t hear much from the company after that, according to the documents and several people involved in the talks — just an e-mail that Sullivan sent to all 20 finalist cities in June, saying they were “still in the running.”
Then, on the morning of Nov. 13, Barros and Ash got an e-mail from Amazon economic development analyst John Lammle, with a link to the company’s press release saying that it would split the headquarters between Crystal City, Va., and Queens, and offering a phone call with Sullivan to “touch base.”
“Thank you,” Lammle wrote, “for your participation in this process.”