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Amazon HQ2 bids: The good, bad, and the totally embarrassing

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Cities are thirsty for Amazon. Is that a good thing?

The fate of your city is in his hands. Portrait of American businessman and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos poses in an aisle of bookshelves with a shopping cart full of books and compact discs, Seattle, Washington, September 1998. 
Rex Rystedt/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

The pursuit of Amazon’s #HQ2 has been compared to an urbanist’s Super Bowl.

But as today’s final deadline for proposals has led to a flurry of activity by planners, mayors, and civic boosters, it seems more like a reality show: Lots of squirming for attention, occasional displays of desperation, and one unlikely suitor winning the rose in a over-the-top finale.

As Recode noted, anxious cities are already reading into anything tweeted out by an official Amazon account.

It’s true that Amazon has taken the entire process, including its detailed request for proposals, very seriously. The potential boon to cities, estimated to be 50,000 high-paid employees and $5 billion in investment from the retail giant, could be transformative.

But, as more than 100 cities submit bids, including all the U.S. cities Curbed covers, would landing Amazon’s second home have it own set of downsides? Seattle’s experience suggests that cities need to plan far ahead to deal with the growing pains and transit issues Amazon may bring to their neighborhoods, and studies suggest HQ2 may bring rising rents at a time when cities are already dealing with shortages of affordable housing.

And, with numerous cities offering tax breaks and subsidies (and even hashtagged holidays), does this create a race to the bottom, with Amazon ending up with the city willing to pay the most for the privilege? (It certainly seems less transparent than Toronto’s celebrated victory yesterday in landing Sidewalk Labs as a development partner for a future smart city district, since Toronto offered no subsidies or tax breaks). Is this how we should fund transformative urban development in the United States, a contest to impress a retail giant as opposed to a larger version of the Smart City Challenge, which spurred on progressive tech and city design in multiple cities?

Curbed broke down the good, the bad, and the somewhat embarrassing submissions made by cities around the country.

Best production value: Detroit’s “Move Here Move the World” video

As a Curbed Detroit reader commented, this plays like a “21st century version of the glossy chamber of commerce brochure.” Produced by Bedrock, the real estate development firm owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert, a big force in downtown Detroit, it’s glossy, well-narrated, and daresay poignant.

Detroit has gotten some positive press for its bid, which is the only trans-national bid, due to the inclusion of Windsor, Canada. Even urbanist Richard Florida listed the city as his sleeper pick. The city seems to be playing off its past, and well as its potential, and this video hits both those points perfectly.

Worst name change: “Calmazon” (I mean, Calgary)

This category seemed like an easy choice when Stonecrest, Georgia, as part of its longshot bid, promised to rename the city Amazon, Georgia, if they won (Bezos Way would have been an apt street name, too).

However, Calgary managed to swoop in and take the prize with a street art campaign that also made a promise to change its name if it lands the big prize. Now it’s just hard to choose which is worse: Calmazon or Amagary? One thing is true: Calgary isn’t messing around.

City with a 5-star rating social media engagement rating: Kansas City

Next time you do some shopping on Amazon, look out for reviews from Mayor Sly James before you buy. The KC leader (and likely more than a few members of his staff) have spent lots of time posting reviews on Amazon, making sure to eventually steer each comment on more than 1,000 items towards a compliment about Kansas City (which, to be fair, has been very progressive with its own smart city district). The city is considered a long shot, but, hey, at least City Hall walks away with a set of “premium wind chimes.”

Best way to send paper towels to Bezos: Birmingham’s Dash button

As part of the Magic City’s “BringAtoB” campaign, which included setting up massive boxes meant to resemble Amazon packages, the city set up a pair of dash buttons in the city, one at a department store in the town center, the other at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Hitting the buttons would send out a prewritten tweet like the one above, which included fun facts, trivia, and—of course—an obvious plea to pick the Alabama city for HQ2.

hyperloop test tube Virgin Hyperloop One

Best (or worst?) wishful thinking: Missouri’s Hyperloop plan

Instead of focusing on one of the state’s three big cities—Colombia, St. Louis, or Kansas City—Missouri decided to offer Amazon all three, with the promise that they’ll eventually be connected via the Hyperloop, the futuristic, mostly untested, high-speed train system promoted by Elon Musk. It’s just the kind of “the type of flashy, out-of-the-box feature” Amazon is looking for, according to Drew Erdmann, chief operating officer to the governor. It definitely reads like something that would be sent via an extensive system of tubing.

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Best frontrunner playing it cool: Denver

A favorite in many site selection exercises, Denver gained a lot of ground when the New York Times’s Upshot blog picked them as the best location for Amazon’s HQ2. As writer Emily Badger noted, “lifestyle and affordability, coupled with the supply of tech talent from nearby universities, has already helped build a thriving start-up scene.”

Local leaders took a muted approach, sending in their plans a day early, and as Sam Bailey, a VP of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, told the Denver Post, “Colorado’s proposal does not lead with incentives. It leads with talent.”

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Best use of momentum: Toronto’s “talent not tax incentives” proposal

During the press conference announcing Toronto at the home of Sidewalk Labs’s new smart city testing ground, Dan Doctoroff, the company’s CEO, said that if Amazon saw what he did, they’d choose Toronto for HQ2. The Canadian metropolis, playing up its diversity, tech scene, health care, and utter lack of Trump, has said it’s the place to come for talent, not tax breaks.

Other cities have followed suit, including San Jose and San Antonio. In fact, the San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg was pretty blunt as he announced the city was bowing out of the competition, writing “Blindly giving away the farm isn’t our style” in a joint letter addressed to Bezos.

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Biggest sellout: New Jersey’s $7 billion incentive package

From a dollars-and-cents perspective, the package announced by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Newark mayor Ras Baraka, and senator Cory Booker, is certainly attractive: $7 billion, including $5 billion in tax incentives, $1 billion in property tax abatements, and $1 billion in breaks from the local wage tax.

Amazon likely sees the potential PR nightmare that would come from one of the nation’s most successful companies, one that already has benefitted from $1.2 billion in tax breaks from cities and states, taking an audacious handout.

In addition, taking away state and city revenue, which would be well spent to solve the affordable housing and infrastructure challenges that come with 50,000 new Amazon employees, may not be the best bet. Amazon will be making a very loud statement with its choice; ideally it’s not “what’s in it for me?”

Best break-up letter to Amazon: Little Rock, Arkansas

It was funny on many levels: The Arkansas city wrote a mock pre-emptive break-up letter and published it in the Washington Post as a means of marketing itself instead of actually competing for HQ2. It’s also a cute way to spend public money on marketing, one of the cheaper examples of cities with little to no chance of attracting the retailer spending money on publicity stunts.

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Best chance of getting what it wants: Amazon