What will be the chief "decider" for Amazon: big-city amenities or politics and money? | Jon Talton

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The list of 20 finalists for Amazon’s second headquarters — “full equal” to Seattle, with 50,000 jobs and $5 billion investment — was released Thursday.

They are: Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Boston; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Denver; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Miami; Montgomery County, Maryland; Nashville; Newark, N.J.; New York; Northern Virginia; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Raleigh, N.C.; Toronto; and Washington, D.C.

With no insider knowledge, I had speculated that the shortlist would include Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, NYC, D.C., Pittsburgh and Toronto — all are in the running. This indicates Amazon was being honest in what it was seeking for an ideal second home. If the company builds a car-dependent office “park” outside Columbus — never mind.

Candidates in one category here have the goods. What I mean is that they have large high-skilled tech work forces, world-class research universities, major international airports, decent-to-good transit and urban centers (or closeness to them) that appeal to the most talented people. Urban density or proximity to it is also important to innovative “creative friction,” where workers can mingle and share ideas. This certainly applies to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, LA, the counties around D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Washington, D.C.

Amazon’s HQ & HQ2

The nation’s capital and surrounding counties connected by rail transit may be especially appealing because of Amazon Web Services‘ many government cloud-computing contracts, as well as the ability to lobby at close range for favorable federal treatment.

The second group of finalists, while its members have one or more of those assets, seems primarily chosen because most could provide Amazon some red-state cred. Also because the states and localities might offer the most generous subsidies to win the second headquarters. This is certainly true of snoozy Columbus, Indianapolis and (outside of the music scene) Nashville. (Whiny Seattle got HQ1 without any major government incentives.)

Newark is blue, but is right across the river from New York City, connected by Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains. It’s in a state with a stagnant economy desperate for a win. Raleigh, in red North Carolina, has the Research Triangle Park and two major universities, but lousy transit and urban assets.

Austin is a blue island in a red state — Amazon, under pressure from the Trump administration, could land two Republican U.S. senators. But while Austin is rich with tech talent and a powerful university, its traffic is a nightmare with barely any transit, and it lacks a big airport. Texas has the means to offer big money.

Miami is an odd choice considering it will likely be under water in a few decades because of rising sea levels driven by climate change. Although it has a unique urban vibe and increasing rail service, Miami lacks a major research university and high-end tech talent. But, again, Florida might be willing to ante up. The state also trends red.

From here, it’s anybody’s guess (go ahead, use the comments section).

The first set of contenders are almost evenly matched, with some trade-offs (e.g., Denver is cheaper than New York City, but you don’t get New York City). The second involves much more difficult trade-offs because these localities lack so many of the assets Amazon needs for a successful headquarters. We shall see how much pay-to-play matters.

As for the more than 200 localities that didn’t make the cut, maybe they can learn what it takes to win a very high-end prize.