Atlanta races for another ‘Olympic moment’ with Amazon bid

Oct 19, 2017

The pitches are in, but the work to land Amazon’s second headquarters is far from over.

On Thursday, a Georgia official hand-delivered hardbound copies of what insiders call a “formidable” package for “HQ2,” a 50,000-job, $5 billion bonanza with the potential to alter the economic landscape of the winning bidder.

The state Department of Economic Development also released a promotional video showing Brittany Holtzclaw, a top state recruiter, leave the department’s offices at Georgia Tech with a box touting the state’s top business ranking. She boards a MARTA train and then a Delta Air Lines jet (one of 11 direct flights from Atlanta to Seattle, a Delta crew member helpfully says in the video). The video ends after she lands in Seattle and enters the company’s Day One tower.

That behemoth Amazon has sparked a nationwide rush by communities trying to win the company’s second headquarters and 50,000 promised jobs. Metro Atlanta might be a top contender, but some of the biggest Atlanta suburbs face a major disadvantage. (Dreamstime/TNS) Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

All the while, words such as talent, connectivity and innovation flash on the screen.

“When everybody hears about Georgia’s proposal, you’re going to see that we left nothing on the table,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at a city event Thursday.

The filmed handoff of Georgia’s bid at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters was a bit of a dramatic flair for a state that typically plays the economic development game with its cards close to the vest.

But such is the nature of a public bidding war unlike any major economic development project in recent memory.

Amazon unleashed an international sweepstakes last month with an online request for proposals for a second headquarters to be the equal of its Pacific Northwest base of operations — a campus totaling 8 million square feet.

Georgia’s proposal includes details for dozens of development sites around metro Atlanta. It boasts about the city’s technology talent. It touts Atlanta’s globally connected airport, the region’s transit network and plans to expand MARTA rail.

The state’s formal bid also isn’t shy about the bevy of incentives and infrastructure improvements Georgia and local officials can offer that total well more than $1 billion.

“I’m highly confident that this is the most aggressive economic attraction package that the state of Georgia has ever put forward,” said Reed, who said the city has never before offered more incentives.

“This is an Olympic moment,” he added. “This is a singular moment for Atlanta.”

Recruiters for Georgia and the city of Atlanta have formally pitched for Amazon’s second headquarters. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM Photo: John Spink/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Recruiters and economic development experts say the pitches from dozens of cities across North America are merely the opening volley to ensure they find a place on Amazon’s shortlist.

Amazon likely started its search with leading contenders already in mind, but people familiar with the metro Atlanta package said Georgia leaders want to deliver a “wow factor” and show Amazon that Georgia has the company firmly on its mind.

“We couldn’t be more proud of the teamwork and collaboration among our economic development partners in submitting a unified response to Amazon’s RFP,” Pat Wilson, the state’s commissioner of economic development said in a statement. “This has been a cooperative effort by the entire region, and we truly believe metro Atlanta is the “Prime” location for Amazon’s HQ2.”

‘Searching for the best deal’

There’s a reason Atlanta is laying it on the line. The city is widely believed to be a surefire finalist for the project. Moody’s Analytics, the financial services arm of the global financial firm, published a recent study ranking the top competitors for the deal on five factors. Atlanta came in second, just behind Austin, Texas.

Roger Tutterow, a Kennesaw State University economist, said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is playing his hand brilliantly. The open competition heightens the stakes.

“This just shows you another compliment to the marketing genius Jeff Bezos,” he said. “He’s got an economic development plum and he’s searching for the best deal.”

Amazon said it plans to make its pick known next year. In the weeks to come, economic development watchers expect Amazon to narrow its list to a handful of cities and make site visits. That’s when the real courtship begins.

Georgia’s pitch — not only the formal package but also in later meetings with Amazon officials if the state advances — won’t focus solely on land and incentives. Leaders will offer a vision not only of metro Atlanta today, but it’s history and future, as an innovator in technology, logistics, civil rights and marketing.

Nearly every major city in the U.S. and elsewhere in North America honed their own packages for the e-commerce giant.

The Dunwoody MARTA station offers transit access to that city’s High Street site, a large tract near Perimeter Mall that is considered among a number of potential locations in metro Atlanta that recruiters could pitch to Amazon for its second headquarters, a $5 billion investment that promises 50,000 jobs. (CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM) Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upped the ante to $7 billion in incentives, from the $5 billion the state previously offered. Cities across the nation have sent emissaries to Seattle, touted their cultural treasures and even installed giant Amazon buttons around town. One tried (unsuccessfully) to ship a cactus to Bezos.

There also have been bids to grab attention among metro Atlanta communities.

The newly-formed suburb of Stonecrest, in a publicity stunt, offered the tech giant hundreds of acres of land that could be incorporated into its own city of Amazon, Ga. Stonecrest’s mayor even promised a legislative push to allow Bezos to be the area’s unelected mayor.

And metro Atlanta wasn’t the only place in Georgia to give it a shot.

LaGrange gave it a go, too, independent of the state, even though the west Georgia city lacks the population, transportation infrastructure and other essentials on Amazon’s wish-list. T. Scott Malone, who heads the city’s development authority, tweeted a picture of LaGrange leaders locked arm-to-arm.

“Look out Atlanta, Chicago and Boston,” he said in a LinkedIn post: “Some people ask why. We ask why not?”

Where could Amazon’s HQ2 go?

It’s the $5 billion question for people in metro Atlanta’s real estate comunity. Georgia’s bid package includes details for dozens of metro Atlanta sites, though ones on MARTA rail are expected to be the ones most appealing to Amazon. The state set up a webpage to crowdsource sites, and many communities pitched the state’s top recruiters on their most prized locations. People who handicap site selection have said these are some of the more promising locations for Amazon in the Atlanta area:

The Gulch

The tangle of rail lines and parking lots in downtown between Five Points and Philips Arena has an incentive structure for redevelopment that makes the site appealing, along with its direct MARTA ties. But other than some vacant office space at CNN Center, does the area have enough existing office space to satisfy Amazon’s needs for at least 500,000 square feet of space for the first phase in 2019?

Midtown

A number of developers are said to have inquired with the state or provided information on land in Midtown, the city’s hottest tech address. Vacant space in existing buildings is largely scarce, except for Bank of America Plaza and AT&T Midtown Center. State recruiters have inquired about the potential of pitching the AT&T campus, which the telecom giant leases, to Amazon along with a number of nearby parcels that are underdeveloped and available for purchase. An AT&T spokeswoman did not return a message seeking comment. The AT&T campus, at the North Avenue MARTA station, is a few blocks south of Georgia Tech’s Technology Square, one of the hottest areas for corporate expansion in the country.

Beltline

The Eastside trail is one of the city’s hottest areas for redevelopment, including Ponce City Market. The area is not served by transit yet, but plans call for a light rail around the 22-mile loop. Might Amazon be interested in various sites on the loop linked by the trail and future rail network. It wouldn’t be a typical corporate campus, but Amazon is anything but a typical company.

Fort McPherson

The former Army post is 10 minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, has two nearby MARTA stations and plans once called for the site to be a bioscience hub. Most of the post was sold a few years ago to filmmaker Tyler Perry for a movie studio. A redevelopment agency controls about 145 acres and has a master developer.

Assembly

The former General Motors plant in Doraville, now renamed Assembly, wooed the headquarters of mattress-maker Serta-Simmons Bedding. Could it entice Amazon? Infrastructure upgrades will connect the site to the Doraville MARTA station, and the campus is close to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and is on the Gold Line that connects to Hartsfield-Jackson.

High Street

Dunwoody officials are said to have pitched the state on the High Street site, a large tract near Perimeter Mall and the Dunwoody MARTA Station. State Farm is building a corporate campus nearby with a direct connection to the MARTA platform. The property is zoned for office towers, condos, apartments, hotels and retail. The main newsroom of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is in a building on the property.

Airport

There are a few large tracts near Atlanta’s airport, including land near the Georgia International Convention Center and in Clayton County east of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

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