We Have Stoplights! Implausible Towns Bid for Amazon Headquarters

By Laura StevensFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Amazon.com Inc. is shopping for a second home, and it has attracted bids from big, urbane suitors such as Boston and Dallas.

It also has fielded a proposal from Rockdale, Texas -- pop. 5,628.

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The town, which enjoys a few stoplights and hosts an annual rodeo, has joined forces with the county to tout the charms of an old manufacturing area near town surrounded by livestock ranches.

"It's wide open spaces," says Kara Clore, executive director of the Rockdale Municipal Development District. "They're not going to have to cram into some little downtown area."

When Seattle-based Amazon said in September it wanted to establish a second North America headquarters -- dubbed Amazon HQ2 -- it set forth a list of preferences: an international airport within 45 minutes, a metro area of more than a million, public-transportation options, universities with software-developer graduates, a strong cultural fit.

The company plans to bestow the winning city with a $5 billion investment that may create 50,000 jobs.

Among 238 cities, territories and regions that Amazon says applied by the Oct. 19 deadline are plenty that appear to fit the bill.

Rockdale is among those that don't quite -- but are trying anyway.

Anchorage, Alaska, feels it, too, has something big to offer. "We're probably the largest place that applied if you look at the footprint of Alaska," says Meghan Stapleton, one of two Anchorage small-business owners who hand-delivered a proposal to Amazon headquarters the day it was due.

Even Alaska's entire population of around 740,000 doesn't make Amazon's cut, but the proposers hope the natural beauty and lifestyle are selling points. They say Anchorage has a business-friendly climate and boasts flight times of 9.5 hours or less to 95% of the industrialized world.

"We just felt so strongly that Alaska should have a seat at the table," says Ms. Stapleton. "That table might not ultimately include HQ2. But at least people are being reminded that we are here."

Amazon, which said it wants HQ2 for more room to grow, won't comment on specific proposals. Holly Sullivan, who is leading its effort, says it appreciates the creativity of many of the ideas: "Cities across North America have shown their ability to think big."

Thinking big for a group of five towns in Massachusetts' Lower Merrimack Valley meant sending Amazon a large fake diamond ring with the invitation: "let's get merri'd."

"We know we're not Boston," says Town Manager Andrew Maylor of one of the towns, North Andover. "We wanted people to be interested enough to read the package because we believe that we have everything."

Scarborough, Maine, says it is unclear which of Amazon's requests are mandatory and which are mere preferences. The coastal resort town of about 19,000 is proposing a harness-race track location. "Yes, there are some huge hurdles, and maybe some of them are insurmountable," says Town Manager Thomas Hall. "Something of this magnitude, you'll build it and they'll come."

The area's proposal touts its proximity to Portland, Maine, which is "Known for Award Winning Chefs and Craft Beer."

The Tulalip Tribes of Washington state applied, hoping to play to Amazon's desire for an environmentally friendly footprint. Roughly 2,500 members reside on the 22,000-acre reservation, about a 45-minute drive north of Amazon's Seattle headquarters.

The tribes are offering a location in what they say is the first tribally chartered city in the U.S., something they say could help prevent "cubicle fatigue" by locating it among the pines, arbutus, firs and cedars -- with autonomous vehicles for transportation.

Also, says Michael Greene, a spokesman for the tribes, "one of the big things -- the advantage of being a sovereign government -- the turnaround for building is much quicker."

Some smaller metro areas such as Hickory, N.C., are banking on being not that far from bigger ones. Hickory, in Catawba County near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, has a four-county metro statistical area population of about 350,000. So local officials instead proposed a site closer to its big-city neighbor, Charlotte, about 30 miles away.

The area, known for furniture and fiber-optic-cable manufacturing, is pitching a blank-slate campus complete with a lake and pointing out that Apple Inc. has already built a data center nearby. "If you don't buy a lottery ticket," says Scott Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp., "you're definitely not going to win."

Rockdale in Texas composed a combined proposal with Milam County, noting that the population within an hour's-drive radius brings them to about 2.5 million people. Rockdale hopes to meet the higher-education criterion by dint of being about an hour's drive from universities in Austin and College Station.

It is playing up the ample extra room, pitching Amazon with a proposed site of 33,000 acres, almost two-thirds the size of Seattle. "This is a rare opportunity, the perfect blend of big business and the magnificence of nature," says the narrator in a video produced for the site. "The opportunity to showcase your global reach among the lakes and rolling hills of Central Texas."

Rockdale's Ms. Clore says she was originally hesitant to apply because itdidn't fit all Amazon's criteria. But Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos is known for his creativity -- and he owns land in Texas, she says. "Why not go for it?"

Leaders of Boise, Idaho, say they know it doesn't meet all Amazon's criteria. Backers sent two one-page letters, anyway. One from the governor suggested Amazon "save us in its cart for later," says Clark Krause, executive director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership. "We knew their tolerance level for looking through our stuff would be short."

The area doesn't have a million people or an international airport. So leaders took the opportunity to tout the area's strong talent pool and food-industry supply-chain expertise. "It would be crazy not to take this opportunity to get Amazon to look at us," he says.

Mr. Krause says the leaders offered to send Boise's six-ton Big Idaho Potato -- a sculpture that rides on a semi-truck trailer -- to Seattle if that would help woo the retailer.

Amazon asked them to resubmit the letters in PDF format. No word on the potato.

Write to Laura Stevens at laura.stevens@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 14, 2017 11:32 ET (16:32 GMT)