Amazonia, USA

The RFPs are in and we all can't wait for the climax of the runaway hit ED reality show: Amazon HQ2, The Survivor.

Not since the Powerball jackpot topped $750 million have we seen so many people with dollar signs in their eyes lining up for their slim chance to win the big prize.

Locations from all across the continent queued up to submit RFPs for HQ2, Amazon’s second North American headquarters, a $5-billion project that promises the winner a bounty of 50,000 new jobs. The location that will become home to HQ2 will be chosen early next year. We’re guessing the good news will be deposited by an Amazon Prime drone on the top of City Hall in the lucky town.

The first round of the public bidding war launched by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos (who posted a detailed RFP early last month and invited everyone in North America to submit proposals) officially ended on Thursday. As soon as the hanging chads are counted in Palm Beach County, we’ll let you know how many economic development agencies fell for Bezos’ gambit and went head over heels trying to impress the online behemoth. The bids most likely will be counted in the hundreds.

We must have missed the part on the RFP form that said all bids should be made public upon submission, but since our national character is now dominated (and governed in Washington) by the dynamics of reality television, exhibitionism has been the order of the day for the wildly popular debut of HQ2: The Survivor.

In fact, so many locations issued public statements claiming they’d be the perfect site for HQ2, a wag posted on Twitter what he claimed was a “U.S. census” graphic of these statements. Suffice it to say, it looks like a map of the U.S. suffering from the worst case of chicken pox in recorded history (image below).

Amazon HQ2

The bids have ranged from extravagant (NJ Gov. Chris Christie served up a $7-billion incentive package on behalf of Newark, courageously offering to hand the bill to his successor, who takes office in January) to mundane (Chicago photo-shopped a huge Amazon logo on the front of its historic Post Office building, along with two little “A” flags at the top) to creative bordering on ludicrous.

Since we’re big fans of creative bordering on ludicrous, let’s all give a shout-out to the city of Stonecrest, GA. The Atlanta suburb, which straddles I-20 (proximity to an interstate is a key requirement of the HQ2 RFP) and is home to 80,000 residents, got really creative: the city fathers offered to change part of the town’s name to “Amazon, Georgia.”

[New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon refused to comment on reports emanating from our lunchroom that he offered to let Bezos build HQ2 next to Citi Field in Flushing Meadow, conditional to Bezos’ agreement to change the name of the company to Amazin.].

We love Stonecrest, but we’re obliged to point out that the City Council hesitated to go all the way with the moniker switch: they offered to designate 345 acres in the 60-square-mile community as “the city of Amazon”—and two of the six council members voted against the proposed annexation. Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary tried to put a positive spin on this mixed message.

“There are several major U.S. cities that want Amazon, but none has the branding opportunity we are now offering this visionary company. How could you not want your 21st-century headquarters to be located in a city named Amazon?” Lary gamely told The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Kudos to Stonecrest, but our favorite submission in the creative-bordering-on-ludicrous sub-contest came from Boulder, CO, which posted its Amazon entry in the mw4mw section of the classified ads on Seattle’s Craigslist site under the headline Alexa, bring me a multi-national conglomerate to satisy my everything. Here’s a sampling of Boulder’s poetic enticement:

Well-educated, fit and fun-sized mountain town is looking for a strong, successful company who knows what it wants and isn’t afraid to take it. I look great in yoga pants, and I want you to stimulate my economy. Healthy lifesytle is a must, so bonus points if you own your own chain of food stores. I’m passionate about the environment: I love steamy, oxygen-produced forests and companies named after them….

Runners-up in the creative-bordering-on-ludicrous sub-contest included Tucson, AZ (which shipped a 21-foot saguaro cactus to Amazon’s HQ1 in Seattle as “a gift”) and Dallas, TX (which created a Spotify playlist to accompany its RFP submission).

Predictably, major industry analysts who earn their bones soothsaying on economic development trends weighed in mightily with their top-10 lists of what they said we’re the most-suitable locations for HQ2.

Moody’s analytics arm larded its top-10 HQ2 contenders list with established and emerging high-tech hubs, including Austin, Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Rochester, NY. However, we encourage everyone to take Moody’s recommendations with a boulder of salt: this is the same outfit that stamped triple-A ratings on bundled mortgage securities filled with sub-prime dreck in the run-up to the global financial meltdown in 2008. We’re not saying their list isn’t credible, just that the messenger borders on you-know-what.

CNN Money said it based its HQ2 top-10 recommendations on “sizable cities with good transportation, strong schools and a talented workforce,” which sounds a lot like they made use of a set of darts, a blindfold and a map of North America. Here’s a brief snippet of the deep-think that went into their selections: they noted that Atlanta, which topped the list, is “within a two-hour flight from 80 percent of the U.S. population.”

If that’s the main criteria for HQ2, permit us to point out that you can reach 80 percent of the U.S. population in less than two hours from the former Fort Monmouth U.S. Army base site on the Jersey Shore if you sit in the cockpit of an F-16.

Some of the groups touting HQ2 contenders broke BF’s first (and most important) rule of rankings: stop at 10. For example, the private consulting firm Anderson Economic Group listed 35 U.S. metro areas its says “meet all of Amazon’s criteria” (see darts, blindfold, map, ibid, op cit).

Economic development rock star Richard Florida, now an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, unleashed a Twitter-storm of 26 tweets that designated—Spoiler Alert: he lives in one of these cities—Toronto and Chicago as frontrunners, and named Detroit, Pittsburgh and Austin as “sleeper picks” before betting the farm on Washington DC as the most likely winner.

Florida, who tends to identify economic development trends by tying his prognostications to an anthropological brew of socio-political and cultural totems, based his choice of DC in part on his research showing that Bezos owns the Washington Post and a $23-million home there. He also noted that putting HQ2 in the nation’s capital could make strategic and political sense for Bezos as the Amazon titan combats rising anti-trust monopoly backlash.

Sorry to burst your bubble, Richard, but the only city in the country that is powerless to influence Congress is Washington, which doesn’t even get a vote in the House of Representatives. However, we agree with Mr. Florida that there may be a strong political component to Amazon’s ultimate selection of the HQ2 site—Bezos could use the selection as a counterpoint to President Trump’s ongoing Twitter-bashing of Amazon as a jobs-killer that is wiping out the retail sector (attacks which, of course, are completely unrelated to stories the Washington Post has been publishing about you-know-who and a guy who runs a country that rhymes with Prussia) .

HQ2 could instantly transform the fortunes of a decaying chunk of the Rust Belt and give Bezos a powerful argument to mollify critics of the elitist stratosphere that Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the rest of the digital pantheon currently occupies, with their CEOs populating the annual 10-richest humans list. [Memo to Jeff: if you really want to change this narrative, how about offering to build some new 21st-century infrastructure instead of specifying that it already be in place for HQ, the Sequel. Something like….a new water system for Flint, MI?].

Speaking of politics, we’ll pause briefly here to note that Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson went out of his way to remind everyone that “[Canada’s] immigration policy is much more liberal [than the U.S.]” during a recent visit to the Amazon HQ1 shrine in Seattle. Yeah, Jim, but we’ve got the Stanley Cup and we’re not giving it back anytime soon, eh?

Amazon HQ2The economic revitalization scenario has put Detroit into play in a lot of the top-10 speculation for HQ2. However, depending on Bezos’ point of view, his most compelling reason for choosing Detroit (aside from the “rebirth of a great city” storyline) may also be his most compelling reason to reject it: picking Motown, the nation’s traditional automotive hub, could put an exclamation point at the end of Bezos’ stated intention of making Amazon a major player in autonomous vehicles—but it also would force Amazon to share top-billing with another industry in its newly chosen second home. The man who put nearly every bookstore in America out of business does not strike us as the second-banana type.

Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and a native son who is leading efforts to revive Detroit’s downtown, says he will personally pitch Bezos on putting HQ2 in Motown. But a recent column in the Detroit Free Press warned that the city may have “shot itself in the foot” when voters rejected a ballot proposal to fund metro transit upgrades (the Amazon RFP says HQ2 candidates must assure the company its workers won’t spend a lot of time sitting in rush-hour traffic).

[Editor’s Note: Top billing as the company town and rapid transportation are two factors that induced us to suggest a few weeks ago that Bezos might put HQ2 on the Moon and commute to his new office on one of his Blue Origin rockets.]

While many of the ED pundits’ HQ2 top-10 lists were dominated by cities, the entries that got our attention were the ones in which competing metros laid down their swords and came together to leverage their regional assets in a bid to get the big prize. A good example of this was the joint entry from Rochester and Buffalo in NY.

“It was apparent that, by linking our efforts, the combined Buffalo-Rochester metro corridor can offer a proposal that is both compelling and extremely competitive,” Invest Buffalo Niagara and Greater Rochester Enterprise said in a joint statement announcing their decision to team up to lure Amazon to Western NY.

Not everyone has been enamored with Bezos’ decision to turn the HQ2 site selection into a coast-to-coast free for all. The RFP circus drew a stinging rebuke from San Antonio, TX. In a letter jointly signed by the city’s mayor and the county’s top judge, addressed to Jeff Bezos and delivered to Amazon on Oct. 11, San Antonio’s top officials informed Amazon that the city would not be submitting a bid for HQ2. The letter offered what one local newspaper termed “a middle finger to the whole gimmick-laden search” for the HQ2 site.

“It’s hard to imagine that a forward-thinking company like Amazon hasn’t already selected its preferred location. And if that’s the case, this public process is, intentionally or not, creating a bidding war amongst states and cities,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson W. Wolff wrote, concluding: “Blindly giving away the farm isn’t our style.”

More ominously, a “be careful what you wish for” bromide came from Seattle, home to Amazon’s HQ1, the city’s largest employer (with 40,000 workers occupying more than 19 percent of its office space). The article, posted on Politico and written by Seattle-based journalist Paul Roberts, was entitled This Is What Really Happens When Amazon Comes to Your Town.

Here’s an excerpt from the intro of Roberts’ critique:

“To be sure, the town’s business community is mortified to be losing so much of Amazon’s future growth to another city and has roundly blamed the city’s left-leaning “anti-business” politics. But many ordinary Seattleites seem relieved. Most would acknowledge the extraordinary prosperity that Amazon has brought to Seattle since Jeff Bezos and his startup arrived in 1994. But they are also keenly aware of the costs, not least the nation’s fastest-rising housing prices, appalling traffic and a painful erosion of urban identity. What was once a quirkily mellow, solidly middle-class city now feels like a stressed-out, two-tier town with a thin layer of wealthy young techies atop a base of anxious wage workers. As one City Council member put it, HQ2 may give Seattle “a little breathing room” to cope with a decade of raging, Amazon-fueled growth. A commenter on a local news site was less diplomatic: “Amazon = cancer.”

Angriest of all was a post on a web outlet known as SplinterNews, which called Amazon’s multinational HQ2 audition “disgusting” and “proof of what extortion of public resources looks like.” In case you didn’t get their point, here’s the SplinterNews headline for the post:

Amazon’s Next Headquarters Should Be in Hell.

Which seems like an appropriate moment to reveal our Top 3 contenders for HQ2:

  • HEAVEN (i.e. the Moon)

[Stay tuned for our next episode of HQ2: The Survivor, which will pit six mayors from the finalist locations against each other in a competition to see which one can recite the original C++ code for Windows 95 while standing naked for a week on Tatoosh Island, WA in February while subsisting on nothing more than quinoa lattes and bean sprouts.]