Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Business

Trigaux: Tampa joins most competitive pursuit — to capture Amazon's new HQ2

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Amazon HQ2 will be Amazon's second headquarters in North America. We expect to invest over $5 billion in construction and grow this second headquarters to include as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs – it will be a full equal to our current campus in Seattle. In addition to Amazon's direct hiring and investment, construction and ongoing operation of Amazon HQ2 is expected to create tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community. from Amazon's website.

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Stretch the imagination a bit. What if Amazon chose Tampa for its HQ2 location?

Gotta think big to get big. The good news is Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. CEO Craig Richard says Tampa Bay meets the key criteria of Amazon's hunt for a second headquarters. Access to a good airport. A metro area topping a million people. Nearby universities of quality. And tech talent.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 13 for us," says Richard in his enthusiastic style. "We have read Amazon's RFP (request for proposal) and it sounds like it was written for us."

But in this extraordinary case, is a "13" effort enough? The desire of metros across this country (Canada, too) to seal this deal is palpable. Conversations similar to mine with Richard are taking place in dozens of major metros. What aspiring U.S. metro would not want to land Amazon HQ2 for one of the fastest growing, innovative companies on the planet that is run by one of the world's richest billionaires?

Richard acknowledges the competition will be fierce; the odds long. "Many other metros will think this RFP was written for them," he acknowledged. And that no doubt includes other metro areas in Florida.

Outside the Sunshine State, the response to Amazon's HQ2 pitch has been broad and deep. "Let the Bidding Begin" screams Friday's page-wide New York Times business headline. "Central Virginia fills the bill," reads the headline in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Toronto Mayor John Tory insists his city can deliver for Amazon. Atlanta "abuzz over Amazon HQ2" reads the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Albany, Austin. Baltimore. Boston. Chicago. Dallas. Denver, Kansas City. Memphis. Milwaukee. Minneapolis/St. Paul… It would be more space efficient to list metros not keen on capturing Amazon's second HQ.

Under the RFP, competing metros have about six weeks to convince Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive team why their locations are best. "We encourage cities to think big and be creative," Amazon states.

Tampa, is all in, says Richard. So is its state-run partner, Enterprise Florida.

"Florida will aggressively pursue this opportunity," Nathan Edwards, Enterprise Florida spokesman, said Friday. "As the most strategic location on the eastern seaboard for global commerce and with a strong workforce and several locations meeting Amazon's needs, Florida is an ideal location for HQ2."

The great Amazon opportunity comes uncomfortably soon after the Florida Legislature eviscerated Enterprise Florida this past spring as an ineffective provider of "corporate welfare" and gutted its budget and limited its job recruiting tools.

RELATED COVERAGE: Who wins on Enterprise Florida? Money stays but Corcoran says 'it's toast'.

Richard says Enterprise Florida still has strong people who know what they are doing in pitches even as big as romancing Amazon. But does it have the depth of incentives that many other metros in other states will be laying at Amazon's feet?

It may not hurt Tampa's cause that Bezos grew up in South Florida and is at least familiar with the state. Amazon certainly knows Central Florida, having opened extensive distribution/fulfillment centers in Ruskin and Lakeland in recent years.

Perhaps there's also a certain yin-yang thing to balancing Amazon's headquarters in the far northwest corner of the country with an HQ2 in the far southeast.

To the Tampa/Hillsborough EDC's credit, it is rallying to make its pitch to Amazon even as a very dangerous Hurricane Irma is approaching South Florida and expected to plow up the middle of the Florida peninsula in the coming days.

A veteran of economic development wars in other major cities, Richard has wooed heavyweights before. He competed for Atlanta when GE said it was relocating from Connecticut (it chose Boston). He pursued Boeing for Dallas when the airplane giant said it would move from Seattle (it picked Chicago). And he successfully helped keep Exxon/Mobil in Houston when it considered moving to Virginia.

At first glance, the most obvious site in Tampa Bay to land Amazon's second headquarters would be Water Street Tampa. At $3 billion (and counting) in an urban setting, the bold 50-plus acre development seems to radiate an aura of innovation that could appeal to the likes of Amazon. Besides, Strategic Property Partners, the firm behind the development, is a joint venture between Tampa Bay Lighting owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, the personal money arm of billionaire Bill Gates. And Gates, like Bezos, is based in Seattle.

RELATED COVERAGE: Water Street Tampa unveils video showing downtown's transformation.

Perhaps Bezos could appreciate what Gates apparently sees in the future of Tampa.

On the other hand, Amazon's HQ2 wants space — lots of it — and may not find Water Street Tampa roomy enough, no matter how high an Amazon headquarters building could be built.

Plenty of other compelling places in this metro could also appeal to the likes of Amazon. But the formidable disrupter of retailing can afford to be picky, and will be. Metros that are truly serious will be throwing everything at the company, from beautiful land and innovative designs to promises of top tech talent.

And incentives. Lots of incentives.

Is it worth it? Amazon estimates its investments in Seattle from 2010 through 2016 resulted in an additional $38 billion to the city's economy. Every dollar invested by Amazon in Seattle generated an additional $1.40 for the city's economy overall.

"This is the trophy deal of the decade as far as I can tell," Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, the non-partisan research group that tracks economic development, told the New York Times.

Does Tampa Bay have a chance for HQ2? Why not? It's just like the recent Powerball lotto prize that prompted millions of Americans to buy tickets. You can't win if you don't play. Somebody eventually did win the Powerball. And somebody will eventually nab Amazon HQ2.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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