An unusually long shortlist, surprising underdogs, and other takeaways from Amazon's announcement of its HQ2 finalists.

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Amazon’s 20-city shortlist for its second headquarters featured its share of surprises. Starting with its unusual length, here are a few takeaways from the next phase of the online retailer’s hunt for HQ2:

That’s a big list

Many companies that undertake a corporate-office search pick a few shortlist contenders for site visits and final pitches, corporate-relocation consultants say. Automaker Tesla named four states as finalists a few years ago when picking a site for a massive battery factory. Boeing’s stealthy hunt for an initial site for its 787 project also landed on four locations. 

Amazon’s HQ & HQ2

“It’s kind of like getting into the NBA playoffs: Everybody gets in,”  joked Jim Renzas, a corporate-location consultant, as he scrolled through Amazon’s shortlist Thursday. 

Then again, most companies don’t launch a public search — or field 238 proposals — the way Amazon did. A larger shortlist, some noted, means fewer policymakers and economic developers coming away with hard feelings. 

Different underdogs

Detroit had been a popular choice of HQ2 handicappers, with the automotive capital  — coming out of bankruptcy and pushing for an urban renaissance — striking many as a feel-good underdog story. (Never mind that the champion of the city’s bid was billionaire mortgage magnate Dan Gilbert.)

Amazon landed on a different set of underdogs in the eastern third of the country. Columbus, Ohio, Nashville and Indianapolis fare poorly by some of the logistical factors in Amazon’s wish list. All have low mass-transit use and small  airports — only Nashville has a daily flight to Seattle.

But development and worker housing there would come much cheaper than the megacities on Amazon’s list. Nashville scores particularly high by quality-of-life metrics including entertainment and restaurants, as well as measures of tax rates and job growth.

A focus on the other Washington

More than a third of Amazon’s candidates are in the dense urban corridor that stretches from Boston southwest to Washington, D.C.

The metropolitan area around the nation’s capital boasts three contenders on its own. Bids from D.C. itself, Montgomery County, Maryland, and an unspecified area of Northern Virginia made the first cut.

Observers were quick to point out that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the owner of a mansion in Washington, D.C.

Betting on Bezos looking for a short commute from his various real-estate properties opens up lots of options, however. The world’s richest man also owns homes in New York, Beverly Hills, Calif., and West Texas, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Little love for the West Coast

Amazon’s move to split its headquarters between two cities is  unprecedented. In assessing the potential benefits of such a move, observers suggested the ability to tap into a different pool of workers as a prime factor. 

An office in the hotbed of high-tech companies in Silicon Valley would open up avenues to the workers already there, but, fundamentally, Amazon would be hiring from the same group of talent: folks living in, or willing to move to, the West Coast.

More than two dozen cities up and down the Pacific Coast bid for HQ2. Only Los Angeles survived the first cut.

Looking north 

Amazon said from the outset that its search was throughout “North America” — rather than just the U.S. — and Canadian cities from Vancouver to Halifax took Amazon up on the offer. So did Mexico, with bidders from three areas submitting proposals.

Calgary was among the most aggressive suitors for Amazon’s attention, blanketing Seattle with ads and aiming a similar digital fire hose at Amazon employees on social media.

In the end, Toronto was the only city outside the U.S. to advance to Amazon’s final 20.

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