Columbus has advanced to the next round in the bid to host Amazon’s second headquarters.
After all, making the list of 20 cities still in the hunt for what would be a transformative project should the city land is one thing; pulling it off is something else.
“We think it is a project that we have an opportunity to win and we’re going to compete hard for it,” said Steve Schoeny, the city’s development director.
The city and Columbus 2020, central Ohio’s economic-development arm that put together the bid for the Amazon project, found out Columbus was on the list the way everyone else did: When Amazon publicly released the list of cities Thursday morning.
The prize is a $5 billion investment by the Seattle-based internet giant that would create 50,000 jobs. Many of the jobs would pay $100,000 or more.
Amazon didn’t say what made these 20 cities stand out. There’s a mix of large and smaller cities; traditional urban areas and sprawling cities; low-cost cities and high-cost ones; progressive cities and more conservative areas and states. Columbus was the only Ohio city to make the list.
When Amazon announced last fall it was going to build a second headquarters, it basically asked any metro area with a population of 1 million or more to make an offer.
Beyond the minimum population requirement, the company said it was looking for a stable and business-friendly environment; urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent; and communities that think big and creatively when considering locations and real-estate options.
Ultimately, 238 regions put in for a project dubbed HQ2, many that fell well below Amazon’s minimum population requirement.
“Now we get the opportunity to head into the next stage of this,” said Alex Fischer, president of the Columbus Partnership. “We are in contact with the company talking about what’s next and we’re gearing up to drive this as hard as we possibly can to the finish. We’re first going to talk to the company to get feedback from them on the initial response and proposal, and then we’re going to take that feedback and the direction of the company to determine progressively how we’re going to move forward.”
“I guess those cities that sent cactuses and tropical fish and all that didn’t pan out,” Gov. John Kasich said of creatives things cities tried to woo Amazon. “We are going to do all the things we can do to capture them.”
Without knowing exactly what Amazon is thinking or how it picked the 20 cities, it’s tough to gauge Columbus’ chances, economic development experts said.
“I couldn’t really hope to place odds on any of them. … Every one of (Amazon’s) criteria isn’t an absolute. It’s a little bit of hard to discern how they scored,” said Dennis McAndrew, principal of Silverlode Consulting in Cleveland, which advises companies on site selection.
The one thing many of the smaller cities on the list have in common is a growing population, something that will be necessary to provide the 50,000 workers Amazon says it will need, said Aaron Renn, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an urban-affairs think tank in New York.
“That’s a huge number of people with the types of skills they’re looking for,” he said. “That’s a big challenge.”
McAndrew said he believes that could be manageable for Columbus since the jobs will be created over a period of years.
“Columbus’ reputation as a good place to live and work, particularly for millennials, would make labor force expansion through relocations very significant,” he said. “Further, there is a large diaspora of folks who grew up in Ohio and would come back for a job at Amazon.”
The smaller cities on the list — Indianapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Raleigh and Columbus among others — shows “they are looking at intriguing mid-sized cities that have a growing base of information-technology assets and some good educational institutions,” Schoeny said.
One of the selling points for central Ohio is its existing relationship with Amazon.
In three years, Amazon has gone from no presence in the state to becoming one of its largest employers with about 6,000 workers. The company has put data centers in Hilliard, Dublin and New Albany; distribution centers in Licking County’s Etna Township and Obetz; and wind farms in northwest Ohio.
Three more distribution centers are planned for other parts of the state.
“Our talent base, our ability to deliver as a region, collaboration among the number of cities in the metropolitan area, transportation (and) workforce” are factors as well, said Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer of Columbus 2020.
Amazon expressed appreciation to all the cities and metro areas that expressed interest in being home to its second headquarters.
“Getting from 238 to 20 was very tough — all the proposals showed tremendous enthusiasm and creativity,” said Holly Sullivan of Amazon Public Policy. “Through this process we learned about many new communities across North America that we will consider as locations for future infrastructure investment and job creation.”
Going forward, Amazon said it will work with each of the remaining cities to obtain additional information and evaluate the feasibility of a partnership that can accommodate the company’s hiring plans as well as benefit its employees and the local community.
It expects to make a decision this year, and Amazon could occupy the first part of the campus as soon as 2019.
The complete details on what Columbus might have been offered Amazon by way of incentives are not known. However, Columbus’ incentive package for the project includes property-tax abatements, income-tax refunds and a transportation plan. The city has stitched together land in Franklinton, Scioto Peninsula, around the Ohio State University campus and Easton that Amazon could use.
Columbus’ Schoeny said he isn’t surprised that the city made it to the next round.
“It’s a great confirmation that we’re doing the things that get us attention from the best companies in the world,” he said. “That’s something we strive for. You can’t win if you aren’t on the list.”