As Amazon opens new facility, Georgia sees chance to boost HQ2 chances

The Amazon distribution hub in Jackson County has already been open a year. But a ceremonial grand opening Friday gave top Georgia officials another opportunity to pitch the state to the e-commerce giant on an even bigger prize.

The company’s “HQ2” second headquarters project, a $5 billion proposal promising up to 50,000 high-paying jobs, loomed large over the event as Gov. Nathan Deal and others put on a charm offensive for Amazon executives. Some hoped it would buoy the state’s chances after an earlier visit by Amazon left officials worried about Georgia’s bid.

The governor used the opportunity to praise the company’s existing footprint in Georgia — Amazon already has several warehouses and technology operations in Atlanta — and talk about workforce retraining efforts. He pointedly said the company’s growth in the state shows Amazon’s confidence in Georgia, and he nodded toward news that another Seattle-based giant, Starbucks, was scouting metro Atlanta for a large office.

“Georgia Tech and Georgia State right here in the capital of our state are great institutions, recognized nationally for the type of graduates they produce,” he said. “Those are the type of graduates Amazon needs. It would be a whole lot easier if they just come to our graduates instead of our graduates leaving and going where they are.”

The HQ2 hunt is an Olympics-like chase for the top contenders, and Georgia has pulled out all the stops, positioning Atlanta as one of 20 communities nationwide on a shortlist of candidates.

Industry observers expect Amazon to narrow the field to perhaps three to five candidates in the months ahead, and Deal and other state officials want to ensure Atlanta makes the cut.

If that happens, the governor said he would likely call a special legislative session to add additional incentives to a pot of more than $1 billion the state has cobbled together that includes tax credits, worker training and transportation improvements.

The clock is ticking: Amazon has said it plans to select its HQ2 home this year, and the state’s pursuit has shaken up Georgia politics. 

‘Red carpet is out’

At the Jefferson center, about 55 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, political leaders and the media were treated with a tour of the sprawling distribution center, which employs 1,000 and stores and ships products ranging from tonic water to kayaks.

“The red carpet is out,” state Rep. Ron Stephens, the chairman of the House Economic Development Committee, said in a recent interview. “We’ve laid the groundwork, and for years we’ve positioned ourselves to be the place to come in the South. Now we’ve got to help them make the decision.”

Some saw Friday’s visit as another chance to bolster Atlanta’s bid amid concerns the company wasn’t left with the best impression after its March visit, which came at the tail end of a tumultuous legislative session. Amazon executives were said to be concerned with two votes in particular.

The first was a Georgia Senate vote to approve a measure that would allow adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples. Though the measure stalled in the Georgia House, it drew intense criticism from civil rights groups and other opponents who called it discriminatory.

The second was a vote to scuttle a lucrative tax break proposal that would have benefited Delta Air Lines after it ended a discount program for National Rifle Association members. Supporters saw it as a warning to a corporate giant trying to influence policy, and business leaders were incensed by the move. Deal later granted a temporary sales tax break on jet fuel but left it up to lawmakers to decide whether to make it permanent.

A new climate

More than three months later, state officials hope a more settled political environment will boost its bid. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and her GOP rival, Brian Kemp, have both expressed support for the effort to recruit Amazon — and both indicated they wouldn’t politicize a potential special session that could push Georgia’s incentive package well into the billions.

On Friday, Deal said a special session would be based on whether “they indicate seriously that there’s a good prospect of their coming to our state” and whether legislative changes are a must.

The governor is also hoping to tamp down fears about Kemp’s pledge to support a “religious liberty” measure if elected. Deal vetoed such a proposal in 2016 over concerns that it would dull the state’s pro-business image because it was considered by critics to be discriminatory. Abrams has echoed that attack in her campaign for governor, calling it “horrible legislation” that could have a chilling effect on business. 

But Deal said in a recent interview that he’d tell business leaders that a compromise could be sticking to the language mirroring the 1993 federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act — and not adding any other provisions.

“I never had the option to decide on that,” he said, “because every one of those versions went beyond what that said.”

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