In a once-in-a-generation sweepstakes to win Amazon’s $5 billion second headquarters — and 50,000 jobs — the state and Atlanta are all in.
Legislative leaders are open to new incentives to lure the tech firm. Recruiters are scouting potential mega-sites close to transit and highways. And Gov. Nathan Deal said he’s ordered his economic team to make a “big push” to win over Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
“I’ve made it very clear to our economic development team that this is a big one,” Deal said.
Atlanta is competing with just about every other large metropolitan area in North America for the second headquarters. The “HQ2” would potentially total more than 8 million square feet, and the firm said its new jobs would pay an average of more than $100,000 a year.
Atlanta will tout the same factors that helped it lure a string of other Fortune 500 firms: a booming airport, warm weather and a business-friendly climate. Georgia Tech’s steady generation of top programmers will surely be at the heart of the pitch, just as it was when Anthem, General Electric, Honeywell and NCR chose Atlanta for major expansions.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said his bipartisan partnership with Deal has helped land other big fish and will come in handy in courting Amazon.
“Atlanta has the fundamental assets to be strong partners to great businesses, and help them grow and succeed,” he said in a statement.
But recruiters must also overcome a national reputation for dismal traffic, limited transit connectivity, questions about political leadership and concerns about socially conservative legislation that could ding the state’s national reputation.
An arms race?
Amazon triggered the bidding war Sept. 7 when it outlined its demands: It's looking for locations in major metropolitan areas with at least 1 million people in a "business-friendly environment" with links to international airports, a high quality of living and transit.
Most economic analysts have Atlanta among the potential finalists. The list of likely sites that could house the mammoth campus include downtown Atlanta’s Gulch, the former General Motors plant in Doraville, Fort McPherson south of downtown and even the High Street site near Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody.
The city is also likely to pitch several sites along the Beltline and the project backed by development firm Carter in the parking lots north of the former Turner Field.
The state and city could also assemble land on the city’s Westside. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, has plans for substantial redevelopment of its Technology Enterprise Park where Amazon might make a good fit.
Likely rivals include Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York, Toronto and Washington. The mayors of Chicago and Washington have already launched aggressive campaigns, and others are sure to follow.
Bids are due Oct. 19, and the company will decide by next year. State recruiters are already honing their pitch.
“We’re doing everything we can to meet with them and answer their questions and try to give them information on issues they have concerns about,” Deal said.
To counter tough questions about Atlanta’s transportation network, they plan to highlight the promises of billions in expected investments in the near future in MARTA and roads and bridges through a series of sales tax programs and a reconfigured gasoline tax.
“There are real plans and more importantly real money to expand our (roads and) transit system,” said Doug Hooker, the executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
‘In the top three’
The Georgia Department of Economic Development will lead the recruiting effort, leaning on Georgia Power’s business recruitment team, local agencies such as Invest Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and major corporations.
Some recruiters say it could take a 10-figure package of incentives to land HQ2.
State Rep. Ron Stephens, the chairman of the state House Economic Development Committee, said “it’s all about business climate,” but he expects lawmakers to be asked to sweeten the pot.
“People said we couldn’t become a hub for major motion pictures and we are,” he said. “If I had to guess, I’m thinking we might be in the top three before anything starts to move because of what we’ve done to set the tone.”
Expect recruiters to also trumpet the city’s affordability and workforce. ARC data show the city is in the middle of the pack of the top 25 metro regions for cost of living.
A recent report by CBRE Research placed Atlanta No. 5 of the top North American cities for tech talent, behind only the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, New York and Washington.
Georgia Tech had more students with engineering degrees in 2015-16 than the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University combined, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The region’s suburbs will present a united front for the deal, the ARC’s Hooker said. After all, if 50,000 workers come to Atlanta, they will undoubtedly live across the metro area.
Georgia’s pursuit of the deal also could complicate the divisive debate over “religious liberty” measures that critics see as discriminatory against gays and lesbians.
The governor nixed the legislation last year amid threats of boycotts from a long list of corporate giants, and he has vowed to slam the door on efforts to revive it. But his term expires in January 2019, and all four leading Republican candidates to succeed him have pledged to sign the measure should it get through the Legislature.
Turnover at Atlanta City Hall also adds a wrinkle in Georgia’s bid. Reed’s term ends in January, and nearly a dozen credible candidates are in the crowded contest to replace him. Some have vowed to fight tax breaks for mega-developments; others promise to pull out all the stops.
Peter Aman, the city’s former chief operating officer and a leading contender for mayor, said Amazon clearly is seeking big incentives in making the deal so public. But the pitch for Amazon should be less about incentives and more about the city’s quality of life, low cost, infrastructure and workforce.
“Our strength is the diversity of our economy,” Aman said.
But where would Amazon best fit?
It would prefer a greenfield site, or one that hasn't been developed but is ready to be. It also has said it would consider a site in a city center that can be assembled.
HQ2’s first phase could involve as much as 1 million square feet of office space starting in 2019, a rapid time frame, which seems to demand existing office space or buildings already under construction. The 8 million square feet Amazon says it will need would equal more than six Bank of America Plazas.
Compare that with the region’s most recent ballyhooed headquarters project: NCR’s new headquarters under development in Midtown, which covers about 760,000 square feet across two phases.
Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who dreamed up the Beltline, said the massive tangle of undeveloped parking lots across from Philips Arena known as the Gulch makes for an obvious choice for Amazon.
“It’s right in the middle of everything. It’s got the best transit access in the region, and most of the property is in government hands,” he said. “It could be completely transformative for the city.”
Bob Mathews, the CEO of the commercial real estate services group Colliers International Atlanta, suggested a suburban site or property at Fort McPherson or near the airport might make more economic sense for the company.
“A build-out of that size, that magnitude, if you’re buying intown, you’re going to have to pay a lot more for the land and you’re going to have to go up,” he said.
Some of Atlanta’s competitors are trying to make a splash on social media. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser cut a video listing the district’s attributes. At the end, she asked Alexa, the Amazon device, where the company should locate.
“Obviously, Washington, D.C.,” a robotic voice answers.
Responding on Twitter to a question from a reporter about when Reed will unveil a flashy new video courting Amazon, the mayor was blunt.
“Eighteen wins is our video,” he said, referring to a string of headquarters deals on his watch. “Patience.”
Amazon’s wish list
In addition to the usual incentives and business-friendly atmosphere that companies often seek in finding a new location for operations, Amazon has expressed an interest in the following conditions for a second headquarters:
At least 500,000 square feet in existing buildings on a site of as much as 8 million square feet. It should be within 30 miles of a population center of more than 1 million people and 45 minutes from an international airport.
The existence of a “strong university system,” with information about “relevant degrees,” including a count of how many students graduated with those degrees in the past three years. It also wants to know about computer science programs in the k-12 schools.
On-site access to mass transit and a location no more than two miles from major highways and connecting roads. It’s also asking for information about “all transit options,” including biking and walking.
Desires include a diverse population and a good working relationship with local government. It wouldn’t hurt if other large companies offered testimonials. In addition, Amazon wants to know about recreational opportunities in the area, housing prices and inventory, the general cost of living and crime.