Making Our Case for Amazon HQ2: All Grown Up – Almost

Denver’s relatively sober and businesslike approach to the Amazon RFP is a leading indicator of our overall maturity

There is a national, even international frenzy following e-commerce giant Amazon’s announcement in September that it was looking for a “second headquarters” location that could eventually involve some $5 billion in investment and as many as 50,000 “high-paying” jobs for some lucky metropolitan area. Amazon, based in Seattle and quickly becoming the gold standard in modern business, has already driven a few cities giddy by placing distribution centers in their midst — metro Denver (Aurora) among them – but that’s small potatoes compared with the whopping HQ2. Responses to Amazon’s Request for Proposal (RFP) were due in mid-October, with the coveted economic development mega-deal winner expected to be picked sometime next year.

The Denver area, through the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., of course prepared a response to the RFP, and there are signs that point to Denver’s position being among the strongest. Indeed, a recent article in The New York Times went through all of the Amazon RFP criteria — a population of at least 1 million, an international airport, “business-friendly” environment, rapid transit, the ability to attract high-tech talent — evaluated as many as 50 U.S. locales, and in a few steps determined that Denver was the logical choice.

To be sure, the idea of the RFP Amazon put out was not only to set the criteria but also to start a bidding war on possible tax and development incentives that states, cities and local businesses are willing to throw into their proposals. New Jersey, it is said, could offer as much as $5 billion in tax breaks over 20 years, for instance, and every place else, including Denver/Colorado, will have significant money on the table. And, apparently, more: Tucson sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a 21-foot Saguaro cactus, and a suburban Atlanta town, Stonecrest, Georgia, is offering to de-annex 345 acres of land for the HQ2 site and rename it Amazon, Georgia.

Silly is often di rigueur in economic development enticement campaigns. Even Denver got on the ridiculous bandwagon some 30 years ago by staging a Macy’s Parade on 16th Street to try and lure the major department store to our downtown — a retailer, by the way, that had given no indication at all that it wanted to expand.

But silliness is often all that the very faint contenders have to offer, so Denver’s relatively sober, straightforward and businesslike approach this time around, I believe, is a leading indicator of our overall maturity. Instead of gee-whiz stuff, we can legitimately sell significant strengths: population growth, particularly among the coveted highly educated millennials; strong economic climate; vibrant mass transit; accessible highways; a great airport; relatively inexpensive and plentiful development land and space; highly ranked research universities; an amazing cultural landscape; unparalleled outdoor recreational opportunities; great neighborhoods, both urban and suburban; and much more.

We also have some significant problems. One of the major issues is traffic congestion all over the greater metro area and especially in the I-70 corridor leading to all of those great outdoor opportunities. The addition of yet another 50,000 people, particularly bunched as they will be in and near a chosen Amazon site, certainly won’t help. And our housing market is getting a little on the expensive side; a huge quick bump in population again won’t help.

I think our most significant challenge in this Amazon pitch, however, is our overall lack of peer corporate entities and other leading business institutions. We used to have larger corporate organizations headquartered here, such as Coors and Gates Rubber, but today we laud for business leadership a very good but relatively small company like DaVita by default; in many other metropolitan areas, it would be a footnote. And we used to have major banks here; leaders of Colorado National, First of Denver and United Bank were pillars of the community. Today, the “big banks” in Denver are headed by branch managers. In other words, our business community — and by extension our philanthropic platforms — isn’t nearly on par with such competitors as Minneapolis, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Philadelphia and the greater New York City area. Business ties and peer-to-peer counsel cannot be overstated as an asset, and Denver here falls short.

When Denver pitched for Macy’s with the frivolous parade, or went after the United Airlines maintenance facility or the “super conductor/super collider,” we were babes in the economic development world. Today, we’re a 20-something equivalent with enormous potential.

All grown up — almost.

Categories: Economy/Politics