Why Atlanta’s shot at Amazon HQ2 is better than expected

Matt Kempner and Scott Trubey take a look at how Amazon's presence has effected Seattle.

Atlanta’s odds of luring Amazon’s second headquarters look better than I had expected before I visited the company’s Seattle hometown.

It was Amazon employees — most of them rank and file, none of whom believed they had any inside knowledge — who made me think Atlanta has a real chance.

And I don’t mean like in the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” where the beautiful woman pursued by Jim Carrey’s character leveled with him that his odds were maybe one in a million.

“So you’re telling me there’s a chance,” he says. “Yeah!”

I'm thinking Atlanta has a one in four shot among the 20 communities on the voluminous "short list" Amazon announced for HQ2.

Our greatest strength and most vexing weakness is our ability to attract tech talent.

Amazon's office spaces at the company's Seattle headquarters feature many common areas and fewer defined offices to help stimulate collaboration. (Scott Trubey / Scott.Trubey@ajc.com)

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On paper, Atlanta is an attractive option. We're big enough (though less so than NYC or D.C.), connected (Amazon, meet the world's busiest airport), accommodating and affordable. Our traffic stinks, but driving in some competing cities is pretty lousy, too. We'll pony up enough incentives, though hopefully not so much that we'll look like the saddest pair of teal loafers on the clearance rack.

Those are all important measures, but not the most crucial one, as became increasingly clear the more I learned in Seattle. Aside from political interference or a veto by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, expect the company to put HQ2 in the place it thinks offers the best shot at hiring and keeping gobs of really smart recruits for years.

It wants a community with a rich supply of talented people and a big pipeline of new graduates. But Amazon also needs a community appealing enough to help it woo tens of thousands more from across the globe.

That’s enough out-of-towners to fill one of Delta’s 737s with fresh Amazon hires every three weeks … and continue at that pace for a decade.

Is Atlanta appealing enough to make that crucial cut?

I asked Amazon employees in and around the streets of Seattle. Those I met were originally from places such as Thailand, France, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Southern California, Canada, Korea and Britain. Not one among the 15 or so was willing to be quoted by name.

If they had to leave Seattle, is there any reason they’d strongly oppose going to Atlanta if that’s where Amazon put a second headquarters?

Nope, they told me. All said they’d be open to Atlanta.

I pushed them a little harder.

A display of Amazon Kindle e-readers line the wall in the lobby of an Amazon headquarters office in April 2017. (Scott Trubey / Scott.Trubey@ajc.com)

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Some in Georgia — including me — have wondered whether many young tech workers harbor negative impressions of the Deep South’s politics and racial baggage.

And would some meaningful subset of liberal techies get wiggy about moving to a Red Red state? Or about the boneheaded things our politicians have done recently that made us look goofy?

But I didn’t hear any of those worries from the Amazon workers I spoke with.

They told me they assumed Atlanta is as welcoming and cosmopolitan as many large metro areas. Some had been in Atlanta or knew people who lived there and hadn’t heard anything worrisome.

My sample size was small, of course. And if Atlanta actually were chosen as Amazon's headquarters, prospective employees would investigate a bit more, which could change their perceptions. (Hurry: someone hide Kasim ReedCasey CagleBrian Kemp and I-285.)

I’m sure Amazon has a more sophisticated way to test short-list cities for potential employee appeal.

And worries remain.

Adrienne Hairston grew up in Douglasville, became a die-hard Atlanta Falcons fan, earned a Georgia Tech degree and now works is a senior project manager at Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle.

She told me she hopes Amazon picks Atlanta for HQ2, but she said her friends in Seattle, including some who work at Amazon, would be apprehensive about living in Georgia.

"Georgia cannot stay out of the news," she said. One conversation subject among her friends on the Left Coast: Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle opposing tax breaks for Atlanta's own Delta Air Lines after it ended special travel discounts for NRA members.

They “think Atlanta is like ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ They thought I was a Southern belle.”

Amazon leaders are more sophisticated than that. They also are ruthlessly pragmatic and business focused.

It’s true the soft stuff and business-based decisions do intersect. Among Amazon’s HQ2 requirements is finding “a compatible cultural and community environment.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is leading in the polls of gubernatorial hopefuls in the GOP primary, is raking in big campaign checks as the vote nears. HYOSUB SHIN/HSHIN@AJC.COm

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Georgia's legislators haven't done us any favors on that front, such as when they proposed allowing adoption agencies to refuse placing kids with same-sex couples.Washington Post story quoted an unnamed source who had toured with Amazon and said, "I just think Atlanta's out."

I’m not convinced.

Amazon plays the long ball. Georgia is more than the throw-away soundbites of politicians. Short-lived political stirs hopefully won't be the deciding factor on multibillion-dollar, multidecade HQ2 decisions. (That's different than somewhat longer-term moves, like the city of Seattle taxing companies on the number of employees they have.)

I’ve heard no Atlanta guarantees from Amazon officials. I didn’t even see a knowing wink when I was in Seattle.

But there’s reason to hope.

Matt McIlwain, is the managing director for a well-connected Seattle-based venture capital firm, Madrona Venture Group. In years past, he also was an executive for Atlanta-based Genuine Parts.

“I think Atlanta is one of the top candidates,” he told me, though he stressed he’s guessing.

Atlanta is near the top on several factors most crucial to Amazon, particularly availability of talent, infrastructure and public-private collaboration, McIlwain said. Also on his list are greater D.C., Boston and, to a lesser extent, Dallas.

One of the top four? I’ll take that.

Find more Kempner columns here:http://www.myajc.com/news/opinion/matt-kempner-unofficial-business/j9F7R2mOGomS5FMjfhho2O/

Check Matt on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist) and Twitter (@MattKempner) or email him at mkempner@ajc.com.

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