Atlanta survives the first cut in Amazon’s HQ2 sweepstakes


Amazon narrowed its list of potential communities for its massive second headquarters on Thursday to a final grouping that includes Atlanta and 19 others in the U.S. and Canada, setting off a battle royale for a project promising prestige and 50,000 high-paying jobs.

Georgia and metro Atlanta leaders hailed the news, while noting much work remains to hone the pitch for the project known as HQ2. The state and local leaders plan to hype the region’s deep corporate and tech workforce, its business climate and quality of life — while papering over demerits such as a poor reputation for traffic.

“This has been a cooperative effort by the entire region, and we truly believe that metro Atlanta has the talent, transit and logistics that provides the best location for Amazon’s second headquarters,” Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement. “We look forward to the next steps, and making sure our region remains at the top of the list.”

The shortlist includes expected finalists, such as Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York, Nashville, Toronto, as well as Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. There were some surprising candidates — Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio — as well as some the notable absences of Charlotte, Detroit, Houston and Phoenix.

The HQ2 derby will likely create one of the biggest incentives bidding wars in memory, as lawmakers covet not only Amazon’s bounty of jobs, but tens of thousands of spinoff jobs likely to come from Amazon vendors and partners.

“Getting from 238 to 20 was very tough — all the proposals showed tremendous enthusiasm and creativity,” said Holly Sullivan, an Amazon public policy executive, who thanked the 238 bidding communities.

“Through this process we learned about many new communities across North America that we will consider as locations for future infrastructure investment and job creation,” she said.

Amazon said little more about its views on the finalists, but broader hints emerged. All but four of the finalists are east of the Mississippi River. Washington, D.C., and two of its suburbs are included separately, and New York City and Newark, N.J., are separated by a river and political rivalries.

Amazon said in the months ahead it will parse finalists’ proposals and make a decision this year, though it did not identify a more precise date.

Amazon unveiled its request for proposals for the $5 billion HQ2 in September, seeking mass transit access and sites near highways. The company wants enough land to expand its future campus to 8 million square feet, or something the size of six Bank of America Plaza towers. Amazon also wants proximity to a bustling international airport.

Observers locally and nationally expected metro Atlanta to be a finalist. Metro Atlanta boasts top-flight universities, including Emory, Georgia State and Georgia Tech, as well as the world’s busiest airport. The metro area is also hobbled by a bad reputation for congestion, but city of Atlanta voters recently approved the largest expansion in MARTA’s history.

The Atlanta area is also a hub for software development, information security, health care IT, data centers and financial technology, all of which play into Amazon’s wheelhouse. Another growth sector in Georgia — television and film production, where Georgia is one of the top production centers in the world — is a top priority for Amazon.

Georgia’s incentives offerings are said to also top $1 billion, and include tax breaks, grants and potential transportation improvements. But that could just be a starting point. A few of the cities — including Chicago and Newark — have already outlined lucrative offerings well into the billions.

For the long list of cities that missed the cut there was a mix of shock and frustration.

Charlotte City Councilman Tariq Scott Bokhari wrote that he “simply cannot understand” how his town didn’t wind up as a finalist.

“If you had told me the shortlist was 5 cities and CLT wasn’t on it, I could understand that,” he wrote on social media, using Charlotte’s shorthand. “I could even nod my head if you said 10. But 20… and no CLT? C’mon man…”

It was particularly bitter news for Houston, which centered its bid on a four-mile stretch of town dubbed the “Innovation Corridor” and was eliminated even as long-time rivals Austin and Dallas made the list. Ditto for Tucson, which tried to send Amazon a 21-foot-tall saguaro cactus. (Amazon said it can’t accept gifts, “even really cool ones.”)

Atlanta is one of 20. What’s next?

The decision puts Georgia lawmakers one step closer to a broader debate over just how much the state should offer to sweeten the pot for Amazon.

Deal said last week he would call a special legislative session to hash out incentives if Georgia is a top finalist for the headquarters. The move was seen as a way to keep Amazon-related matters from becoming political bargaining chips — and from complicating election bids this year.

It could be a dicey proposition for conservatives and liberals alike who would have to vote on potentially 10-figure economic development packages to lure the e-commerce giant. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released last week shows broad public support for a potentially lucrative package.

The poll showed about 65 percent of those surveyed said they would support giving incentives worth more than $1 billion to Amazon if it brings tens of thousands of jobs to the state. Given the competition, the $1 billion figure could just be the starting point.

Georgia also must thread a delicate needle when it comes to some potentially explosive issues, such as so-called religious liberty legislation that critics say discriminates against the LGBT community.

Intriguingly, Indianapolis and Raleigh made the shortlist despite recent political firestorms over similar legislation. In Indiana, lawmakers and then-Gov. Mike Pence reversed course on a religious liberty bill by adding anti-discrimination language, and North Carolina tried to fix a “bathroom bill” with legislation that was still panned by LGBT and business groups.

Atlanta’s progression to the next round is a sign “we haven’t done anything to exclude ourselves,” said Emory University business professor Tom Smith.

“It’s important that we not shoot ourselves in the foot going forward, like seriously considering new religious liberty legislation during this year’s legislative session,” he said.

Indeed, Deal and top allies hope to avoid a tough debate over the measure this year. The Senate approved a bill Thursday designed to make adoption easier in Georgia – but without a provision that would let some private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples. An impasse over that measure led to a legislative standstill last year.

Still, some supporters of the religious liberty measure are making a renewed push for it to be approved this year, arguing it won’t hobble the pursuit of Amazon.

They argue that it would protect people of faith from government intrusion, as well as strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage. And they note that 12 of the 20 cities on Amazon’s list are in states with some form of “religious liberty” legislation.

“While it is a bit early to speculate on where the second headquarters will be built, I am willing to make a bold prediction: Amazon will accept RFRA whether they like it or not,” state Sen. Marty Harbin, a sponsor of the legislation, said using an acronym for Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

How far will Georgia go?

Most of the finalist cities boast deep technology talent pools, research universities, world-class international airports and robust transit networks; all of which were among Amazon’s requirements.

But some — such as Indianapolis, Columbus and Raleigh — are smaller cities that seem to lack the air connectivity or transit that Amazon craves.

Amid the fervor over Amazon is the real chance Georgia and other rivals will break the bank for a single company. Others worry of what some have labeled a “prosperity bomb,” where a rush of high-paying corporate jobs could exacerbate a burgeoning affordable housing crunch in Atlanta, much as Seattle has grappled with a yawning inequality gap.

Atlanta already scores among the worst major cities in the U.S. for income inequality, with high-income households earning 17.5 times their low-income counterparts, according to a 2016 Brookings Institution report.

The city also faces a housing crisis, as inexpensive homes dwindle and developers focus almost exclusively on building luxury apartments. Top housing experts are warning city officials that Atlanta cannot absorb a projected influx of 50,000 Amazon workers without major spending and policy changes to bring housing for middle- and low-income residents.

Georgia’s bid still remains shrouded in secrecy. State law allows Georgia’s recruiters to keep details of the bid under wraps, and the state’s top recruiters and political leaders have been guarded in what they could say. State leaders and a number of real estate professionals are locked in airtight non-disclosure agreements.

It is known that the state pitched a menu of at least 70 sites that could serve as self-contained campuses and others that stitch together multiple sites into a campus within the fabric of in-town and suburban communities.

These include downtown’s Gulch and sites near the Beltline, airport, and Midtown. Also said to be part of the list is the city of Stonecrest’s offering to make a part of the city its own city of Amazon.

Staff writers Willoughby Mariano and Stephen Deere contributed to this report.

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