Chad Emerson, president and CEO of Downtown Huntsville, Inc., knows that the odds are stacked against the city of Huntsville, Alabama being selected as home of Amazon’s proposed second headquarters — but he takes a page from the city’s space race past when explaining why he believes anything is possible.
“The rockets and the rocketeers were all based here and that was called a ‘moon shot,'” Emerson told me. “A lot of people questioned whether it was possible or practical. Here in Huntsville, we didn’t question whether it was possible or practical, we just set to innovate and make it happen.”
Hunstville and Emerson are hardly alone in having goals that would seem at best optimistic for their town. A total of 238 cities submitted applications for HQ2, some relying on gimmicks and others on tax incentives to woo Jeff Bezos.
It’s not just Amazon that these cities are trying to attract. Talk to any local politician or civic leader and they’ll tell you their hometown is a burgeoning tech hub. Words like “innovation,” “startup,” and “entrepreneur” point toward tech as one of the few hopes for local development and the retention of its young and talented citizens.
So why, with so many bids, including ones from the likes of New York and Chicago, do smaller cities believe they have a chance? How do they think they can manage to convince Amazon that their city is worthy?
I reached out to the reps behind bids in three moderate-sized cities to hear what they had to say about their chances, and I started with Huntsville, which also happens to be my hometown.
Huntsville’s moon shot
I’ll admit Huntsville, Alabama was probably not high on many experts’ lists when the bidding process was announced. I grew up there, and even with my sense of hometown pride, I can understand why at least one oddsmaker didn’t even include the town in its list.
But the city and those who backed the bid believe. Chad Emerson’s references to the space race certainly conjure up an underdog theme with big risks but big rewards. Harrison Barnes, a business relations officer for the city, agrees, pointing out, “Huntsville likes to punch above its weight.”
But Huntsville isn’t just coasting on the past. NASA continues to have a major presence in the city, decades after the Apollo missions, and the city has some direct ties to Amazon. It’s home to the Twitch-owned (and, thereby, Amazon-owned) Curse Gaming. And the Bezos-owned space flight company Blue Origins announced plans to open a 400,000 square-foot production facility there earlier this year.
“If someone thinks Huntsville is just another small city in the Southeast,” Emerson says, “We’re here to dispel that notion. We’re much larger in our innovation footprint than in just a pure population number.”
It’s a sentiment backed up by a June 2017 CNN story that ranked Huntsville the hottest non-Sillicon Valley market for tech jobs.
And it’s things like that CNN ranking that make Huntsville’s bid more than just a charm offensive; Harrison, Emerson, and their groups believe it’s possible.
“Bezos and his people are the type of people who appreciate the importance of a moon shot,” says Emerson. “Moon shots only happen with an incredibly large innovation pool of people. We took humans to the moon and we’re working to take humans to Mars and we’d love to see Amazon become part of that process here.”
The Kansas City gambit
How’s this for a big splash: Kansas City mayor Sly James purchased 1,000 items on Amazon and then gave each of those items a 5-star review that made a case for Kansas City as the best site for HQ2.
Besides generating a lot of attention for KC, putting a little change in Bezos’ pocket couldn’t hurt, right?
Tim Cowden, CEO of the KC Area Development Council called the gesture, “something that was thoughtful, that was calculated for the greatest impact. We thought it was smart and a sophisticated approach.”
In terms of the gimmicks I saw, this gets points for originality and presented Kansas City through the prism of Amazon. It showed planning and thought beyond, say, a giant cactus.
Kansas City even went so far as to hand-deliver their bid to Amazon. Whether that personal touch is enough to sway Amazon remains to be seen.
Cowden also played the tech angle, saying “Kansas City is a market that is poised to burst upon the American scene. There’s a tremendous energy here with entrepreneurs, tech companies, with talent that’s moving here from all over the country.”
While Kansas City may not immediately come to find as a tech hot-spot, the bid follows recent press that paints an optimistic picture of a start-up oasis in the heartland. And that CNN story that put Huntsville number one for new tech jobs? Kansas City wasn’t far behind, ranking fifth.
Cowden is confident Amazon will see through any skepticism. “There are a lot of pundits that have their opinions and that’s great,” he says. “We’ll let the process sort itself out. We believe that Kansas City has put forth an amazing proposal for Amazon.”
He adds, “We compete in a crowded marketplace all the time and we enjoy those odds. No concern from our end on it.”
Sacramento’s bold play
“If Amazon makes an incentive decision, it’ll be the biggest mistake of their lives.”
That bold proclamation came from Barry Broome, president and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. He was speaking to the billions of dollars in tax incentives offered to Amazon by various locations for HQ2.
A beat later, he offered another claim wrapped in swagger. “If Amazon goes to the East Coast, if Amazon goes to the South, it’ll be the biggest mistake Jeff Bezos ever made with his company.”
Broome’s audacious statements were in reaction to my asking how Sacramento compared to New York, Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago. He called those cities “second-tier markets when it comes to digital technology,” while adding, “We’re a community that has a modern economy that extends beyond what you consider to be traditional economies. “
For instance, Atlanta, which is a front-runner according to some pundits, has an economy that, according to Broome, “is driven by Coca-Cola … Our economy is driven by Google, Facebook, Intel.”
Broome also claimed that powerful political lobbies behind those four cities would, “destroy Amazon’s economic future by organizing regulatory activities to shut down the inventive nature of Amazon.”
Instead, Broome boasted of California’s progressive regulation of new industries, citing Tesla as an example and saying the state “will really understand how to power Amazon into the future.”
His statements — split between places that are doing too much to kowtow to Amazon and other cities that would be too stringent with regulations — highlight the balancing act that cities are trying to strike in attracting tech investment. Be too harsh and another city will become more attractive; be too lenient and tech investment could do more harm than good.
Broome’s confidence bordered on brashness. It was the only time I heard anyone behind these three bids talk negatively about other bid cities in defense of their own. But in the course of our conversation, it’s clear his feelings come from a very real and deep belief that the Sacramento region’s bid is the perfect one for Amazon.
He heralded the city’s advantages over other locations, citing diversity (including its sanctuary status), affordability (noting its lower cost of living as compared to Seattle), and the rich, highly educated workforce (the city is 10th nationally in terms of STEM graduates and is in close proximity to San Francisco and San Jose that rank first and second).
Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg shares Broome’s confidence. “I would put this city up against any city,” he said. “We’re not afraid of competition. It’s good. We’ve got a lot to offer and whether we win or whether we don’t — in this particular opportunity, I think we have a great chance — you just keep putting it out there.”
There’s certainly been a good deal of skepticism about how Amazon itself has approached this selection process and, again, how some bidders have responded with tax breaks and other controversial economic promises to make their location more appealing.
But there’s no denying the deeply-rooted civic pride of each of these three cities and how that feeds into their bids. And it drives home how tech-oriented the nation is becoming. As the space in Silicon Valley runs low and the cost of living continues to skyrocket, those companies, and the jobs and economic windfall that come with, have to go somewhere.
But, for now, the focus is on target. And for all the charm, confidence, and hope, the only thing any of these cities can do now is wait and see what Bezos has in mind.