Would $1B lure Ama­zon here?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - BUSINESS - Matt Kemp­ner Un­of­fi­cial Busi­ness

Ama­zon could make the most gar­gan­tuan of de­liv­er­ies to metro At­lanta. We just have to give the on­line gi­ant en­cour­age­ment. Like maybe way more than $1 bil­lion.

The com­pany that reg­u­larly awes con­sumers and debones com­peti­tors re­cently an­nounced it is search­ing for a place in North Amer­ica to put a se­cond head­quar­ters. The site might even­tu­ally in­clude 50,000 al­go­rith­mi­cally op­ti­mized em­ploy­ees, with aver­age com­pen­sa­tion top­ping $100,000.

Ap­par­ently Ama­zon is so big and in­no­va­tive that it can no longer be con­tained by its mere 33-build­ing base in Seattle, a city the com­pany has squeezed like a le­mon for ev­ery drop of tech tal­ent, af­ford­able hous­ing and traf­fic ca­pac­ity.

For HQ2, as it is call­ing the pro­ject, Ama­zon has care­fully chore­ographed what it surely hopes will be a crazed bid­ding war among com­mu­ni­ties.

A Seattle Time colum­nist warned that for the win­ning city, Ama­zon “is about to det­o­nate a pros­per­ity bomb in your town,” with both eco­nomic good­ies and painful side ef­fects, like soar­ing rents and an over­abun­dance of guys from a male-dom­i­nated in­dus­try.

Georgia should be care­ful, of course. We should rea­son­ably as­sess ...

Ahh, who are we kid­ding. Ama­zon, we love you! Won’t you pretty please pick At­lanta, Hot­lanta, Too-busy-to-hate-lanta?

We’ll make it worth your while.

By the power not vested in me, I hereby give you a run­way at Harts­field-Jack­son-Ama­zon At­lanta In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Also, you can have Georgia Tech. And ev­ery Fri­day we’ll de­liver each lo­cal Ama­zon em­ployee a free King of Pops peach ice treat.

R.K. Se­h­gal, a for­mer Georgia com­mis­sioner of In­dus­try, Trade and Tourism, (who by the way called my ideas “bril­liant”) told me “You have to put lust in their hearts.”

Ama­zon, we are do­ing our sexy dance.

To land Ama­zon we need to pro­vide more than “meat and pota­toes,” Se­h­gal said. Lots of work­ers? Busi­ness friendly? Top uni­ver­si­ties? Big air­port? Tax breaks? Free land? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah

“Give them some­thing they haven’t asked for,” he said.

Se­h­gal’s idea: of­fer Ama­zon free or sub­si­dized col­lege ed­u­ca­tion for the chil­dren of ev­ery At­lanta em­ployee (be­yond Georgia’s HOPE schol­ar­ship). Put a univer­sity branch on the new cor­po­rate cam­pus.

Sub­si­dize the K-12 pri­vate school ed­u­ca­tions for their younger kids, he said. (I sus­pect the kids would pre­fer my free ice pop idea.)

Also, get the CEOs of the 50 big­gest com­pa­nies in Georgia to wel­come Ama­zon with a signed full-page ad in The At­lanta Journal-Con­sti­tu­tion. (I swear, this was his idea.)

In to­tal, Se­h­gal said, prom­ise $1 bil­lion in in­cen­tives if Ama­zon brings a guar­an­teed 50,000 new jobs to Georgia.

He wasn’t kid­ding. In fact, he may have been low balling.

Georgia’s au­to­matic, off-theshelf job tax breaks al­ready could eas­ily ex­ceed half a bil­lion dol­lars for a pro­ject that size.

The state of Wash­ing­ton ponied up $8.7 bil­lion in in­cen­tives to en­cour­age Boe­ing a few years back. Too bad Boe­ing ap­par­ently more re­cently cut jobs there.

Such spe­cial breaks gives hives to peo­ple like Greg LeRoy. He’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Good Jobs First, a non­profit re­search group on eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, and a fre­quent critic of fat in­cen­tives for cor­po­rate re­los and ex­pan­sions.

“Tax­pay­ers should watch their wal­lets,” he said.

He told me he wor­ries that a 10-fig­ure deal for Ama­zon is pos­si­ble.

“In­cen­tives al­most never de­cide where a com­pany de­cides to ex­pand or re­lo­cate,” he said.

In­stead, a “not very long list of places” will meet Ama­zon’s cri­te­ria for where it can scoop up enough ex­ec­u­tive tal­ent. At­lanta, he said, is likely on the list.

“It ab­so­lutely is go­ing to be driven by where they can get the brains they need.”

And what brains they need will de­pend on what busi­ness spe­cial­ties they fo­cus on out of HQ2, he said. Ama­zon is an in­creas­ingly broad com­pany, from buy­ing Whole Foods to sell­ing pretty much every­thing on­line to of­fer­ing cloud com­put­ing ser­vices to mak­ing movies. Ama­zon won’t stop there.

What­ever com­mu­nity in­vests in HQ2 won’t have to be bet­ting that Ama­zon will re­tain its com­pet­i­tive edge in one par­tic­u­lar in­dus­try. Ama­zon has fig­ured out how to in­no­vate in vir­tu­ally any­thing it jumps into.

Ama­zon is ask­ing com­mu­ni­ties to turn in bids by Oct. 19. It set up a site lay­ing out the pa­ram­e­ters of what it wants.

The com­pany’s de­mands read like what a lot of peo­ple might de­sire for their com­mu­nity. A lo­cale where peo­ple “en­joy liv­ing, recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties, ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties and an over­all high-qual­ity of life.” What’s not to love?

Ama­zon stressed that its wants to be among a di­verse pop­u­la­tion, it is com­mit­ted to “sus­tain­abil­ity” and it’s a big fan of re­new­able en­ergy. (Are you lis­ten­ing, Georgia Power?)

It said it ex­pects di­rect ac­cess to mass tran­sit. (Hello, Georgia leg­is­la­tors, county lead­ers and trans­porta­tion tax vot­ers?)

It wants stats on traf­fic con­ges­tion. Uggh. This is where we’re go­ing to have to do some fast talk­ing. “That? Oh, that’s go­ing to come out with a quick buff­ing. Hey, look over here at this re­ally big air­port.”

Ama­zon seems to put the heaviest weight on be­ing in a com­mu­nity that has a big, tech­nol­ogy-minded, well-ed­u­cated work­force, a “sta­ble and busi­ness friendly en­vi­ron­ment and tax struc­ture,” strong uni­ver­si­ties and a will­ing­ness to sup­ply rich in­cen­tives.

I sus­pect At­lanta and Georgia will come off well on the first three; we’ll have to search our souls and check­books on that last one.

Oth­ers seem to think we have a de­cent shot.

A colum­nist for Bloomberg dis­sected Ama­zon’s list and con­cluded that At­lanta is one of just six cities likely to fit the cri­te­ria. (Though the writer, who is based in At­lanta, also ques­tioned whether Georgia, Texas and North Carolina might get dinged for state leg­is­la­tors’ “flir­ta­tions with anti-gay laws un­der the guise of ‘re­li­gious lib­erty’ and anti-trans ‘bath­room bills’).”

CNN fo­cused on eight con­tenders in­clud­ing At­lanta. The New York Times had At­lanta in a list of the top nine, but then knocked us out for traf­fic is­sues, be­fore ul­ti­mately set­tling on Den­ver. (This one struck me as odd. Ama­zon al­ready has a west­ern base. Wouldn’t there be a more pow­er­ful draw for HQ2 to be some­where near the East Coast, of­fer­ing a quicker gate­way to this side of the coun­try and Europe?)

Gov­ern­ment in­cen­tives doled out es­pe­cially heav­ily for a sin­gle for-profit busi­ness is a form of pick­ing fa­vorites. It’s cor­po­rate wel­fare. The ra­tio­nale for them is some­times weak, par­tic­u­larly with give­aways for new sports sta­di­ums. There are lots of other pub­lic needs that could ben­e­fit from the im­me­di­ate in­fu­sion of gov­ern­ment money.

But, hey, we’re talk­ing about Ama­zon.

It can ex­po­nen­tially in­crease our tech stand­ing and eco­nomics faster than you can say, “Alexa, send a bucket of Georgia-made ice pops to Jeff Be­zos. Put it on my credit card.”

I need to start a sign-up sheet of At­lantans will­ing to in­vite the Ama­zon CEO over for din­ner.

ELAINE THOMP­SON / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Con­struc­tion con­tin­ues on three large, glass-cov­ered domes as part of an ex­pan­sion of the Ama­zon.com cam­pus in April in down­town Seattle.

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