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Amazon HQ2 bids: The weird ways cities wanted to woo Bezos

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Private train cars, Amazon University, and new type of logo treatment

Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

Amazon’s HQ2 search has ended. But the trickle of information about the contestant cities’ billion-dollar bids suggest that it’ll take a long time for local leaders to change their ways when it comes to courting corporations, in the hopes of creating new jobs and prosperity.

Amazon’s initial promise of a new office and 50,000 high-paying jobs—since divided between the winning cities, New York and Crystal City, Virginia—created a media frenzy (ahem, hi) and an outpouring of quirky, attention-getting bids. Kansas City left 5-star product reviews on the e-commerce site, Calgary offered to rename their city, and Birmingham promised to install massive Dash buttons in its downtown, all in attempts to become North America’s next big company town.

The final bids showed just how serious the site selection game has become. Details from the city bids that have emerged—many remain undisclosed, and/or locked behind NDAs—suggest billion-dollar packages are commonplace in the corporate incentive game.

Earlier this month when the New York City Economic Development Corporation made public its pitch to Bezos, the document laid out how the city would roll out the red carpet for Amazon, even transforming the city’s iconic I ❤️ NY logo into an Amazon-friendly graphic.

But while NYC’s offered financial package, a combination of city and state funds ($1.525 billion in performance-based direct incentives for creating 25,000 jobs, including $1.2 billion from the state’s Excelsior Program and $325 million from Empire State Development) has electrified opposition and created debate over notions of corporate citizenship, it’s not even as generous as offers from other cities. With promised of multibillion-dollar tax breaks and benefits, it’s become apparent how stacked the location game has become.

The New York and D.C. metro area offer talent pools and access that other cities simply can’t match; if such generous bids can’t sway Amazon to middle America, does that mean superstar cities will become more advantaged, as economic growth becomes more and more concentrated?

Proponents argue that incentives, regardless of the shifts in how public money is spent, bring needed jobs and tax revenue. But what may be most telling about this process is how many don’t want to repeat it. Finalists like Miami, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis, Indiana, plan to keep their bids secret, while in Nashville and New York City, local legislators have backed bills to ban NDAs and curb he backroom dealmaking that permeated the HQ2 process. Here are just a few of the bid details we do know:

As part of its Amazon HQ2 bid, Atlanta proposed creating an Amazon-only train car.

Building Bezos University

To answer the Amazon’s request for high-quality talent and a pipeline of skilled tech workers, many HQ2 bid proposals touted the excellent education and tech ecosystems in each respective city. But some plans went further. Washington, D.C. offered to create an Amazon University, a specialized workforce development center that would, as WAMU reported, offer “customized educational curriculum for bachelors, masters, and executive education as well as training and workforce development programs … to meet Amazon’s specific talent needs.”

A municipal Alexa for Amazon

Boston’s bid included an offer to create an Amazon Task Force and permanent positions at City Hall that would be focused on helping the company with contracts, legal documents, and other paperwork, offering the world’s biggest company a Prime-like level of municipal service. Boston wasn’t alone: Chicago offered a “concierge service” to help expedite building permits.

Take the A(mazon) Train

A key element of Amazon’s initial RFP was transportation: Any city with a real shot needed a reliable transit network and easy access to an international airport. From Cleveland to Columbus, Ohio, many HQ2 proposals promised extensive investment in new rail lines and expansion of existing services. Atlanta decided to offer Amazon private transit options, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including a company-only lounge and free parking at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and an Amazon-dedicated train car on the city’s MARTA transit system.

Big branding opportunities

Orlando, Florida’s bid included the standard array of tax breaks and investment options, but stood apart with its promise to give the company a new kind of graphics treatment. The city proposed to create a large solar array in the shape of the company’s logo. You can call it pandering, but at least it’s a more sustainable long-term investment.