By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Sept. 22, 2017
Metro Atlanta leaders, working in concert with state of Georgia, are pulling out all stops to lure Amazon’s HQ2 to the region.
The prospect of winning Amazon’s second headquarters with the potential of 50,000 new jobs has captured the attention of all the major players in the state and the region.
“Amazon is the Olympic moment for economic development in metro Atlanta,” one business leader said of the possibility. Another called it the equivalent of a “corporate Super Bowl.”
So far, it appears Amazon is seriously looking at Atlanta. The online retail company put out a Request for Proposals on its website – a free-for-all kind of process.
But, according to people close to situation, the company has approached certain communities to see if they would sign a non-disclosure agreement so they can get more specific information on what Amazon is looking for in its second headquarters.
The company did reach out to representatives working on the metro Atlanta team about the non-disclosure agreement, which local leaders agreed to.
The Georgia Department of Economic Development is leading the recruitment effort for Amazon. Its commissioner, Pat Wilson, would not comment because it is an active prospect.
Gov. Nathan Deal on Sept. 20 said the state is working with the Atlanta region on the proposal that’s due in mid-October. Asked about Atlanta’s chances to secure Amazon, Deal said he had no way of knowing. “Hopefully we’ll remain on the list as they move forward,” he said.
When the project was first announced, the state of Georgia was dealing with Hurricane Irma, and there was concern among some metro business leaders that other cities were outpacing Atlanta in putting together impressive proposals.
“We needed to be thinking big and not treat it like a real estate proposal,” one business leader said. If Atlanta wanted a shot at winning Amazon, it would have to be big, bold and disruptive with its proposal.
In response to a question about Amazon at his talk to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta on Sept. 19, Cousins PropertiesInc. CEO Larry Gellerstedt said there is “no shortage of competition” for cities going after Amazon, mentioning cities like Dallas, Austin and Charlotte.
“I’m involved in helping craft metro Atlanta’s proposal,” Gellerstedt said. “There’s no clarity in what’s driving Amazon’s decision making. It’s a little too early to tell. The big positives for Atlanta are obvious — the airport, universities and MARTA.”
So if metro Atlanta is going to wow Amazon, it will need to capture the company’s imagination.
Several Atlanta development and real estate leaders who do not have a dog in the hunt have been asked by the state to help assess “the big ideas” that could be part of the state’s proposal. Among the people involved with that group include Gellerstedt, Georgia Power Co. CEO Paul Bowers, real estate developer Matt Bronfman of Jamestown, former Post Properties Inc. CEO Dave Stockert and commercial real estate developer Bob Voyles.
One big idea being considered is the Civic Center combined with “the Stitch” — a concept proposed last year by Central Atlanta Progress that would bridge the Downtown Connector and create a unique site directly connected to the Civic Center MARTA Station. Apparently efforts are being made to get commitments from state and local governments as well as companies and foundations to help pay for that big idea.
Other possibilities include the railroad gulch near Philips Arena, Fort McPherson, the Assembly Project in Doraville, and a possible site on the Westside, among others. The state has let it be known that if the project is to get state incentives, it will have to be part of a metro wide response.
The state also has asked the Metro Atlanta Chamber to take the lead on the marketing side of the proposal, and the business leaders are approaching a film company to shoot a movie to help sell Atlanta.
“We are going to give it everything we’ve got,” one Atlanta business leader said. “This is our opportunity to market Atlanta, and we are going to take full blown advantage of it.”
That leader also said, “We are going to school to understand Amazon and [CEO] Jeff Bezos. We want to know how we can get the attention of Jeff Bezos.”
Already, a small team has visited Seattle to get a better understanding of Amazon’s corporate headquarters. It’s a compact, urban campus. It’s full of young people who walk everywhere, and it seems everyone has a dog.
Metro leaders also are looking for strong local connections to Amazon, beginning with United Parcel Service Inc. and its CEO, Dave Abney. Amazon is a major UPS customer, and Abney apparently knows Bezos.
Also, Atlanta is home to some of the nation’s leading manufacturers of boxes and packaging – WestRock, Georgia-Pacific, Veritiv and Graphic Packaging. And Amazon uses lots of boxes.
“We are a center of boxes,” one leader said.
Atlanta’s bid for Amazon does have some hurdles. For starters, The Home Depot Inc. — the highest-ranking Fortune 500 company in the state — is not keen on the online retailer having a greater presence in Atlanta.
But more importantly, one leader said the metro area’s Achilles heel is that the General Assembly passed religious freedom legislation in 2016, and that could be reintroduced — a move that could deter Amazon. Also, it’s a possibility that the controversy over Confederate monuments could detract from Atlanta’s bid.
When asked about religious freedom legislation, Gov. Deal (who vetoed the bill in 2016) said, “There are certain issues that have to be dealt with in a very delicate fashion or there will be repercussions that are not foreseen.”
Despite those vulnerabilities, business leaders said the state and the region now are working in tandem to capture Amazon’s attention.
“We are putting the best team forward,” one Atlanta business leader said. “Getting Amazon would be transformational in terms of economic impact. It would be phenomenal.”