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The HQ2 Sleuths: Amateur Detectives Decipher Clues On Websites Dedicated To Predicting Amazon's Second HQ Location

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Nearly two weeks ago, a user on the popular online discussion and news site Reddit confidently posted an interesting theory: Amazon's second headquarters was headed to Atlanta.

This poster had evidence — a string of news reports and potential coincidences that seemed to point to that conclusion, all centered around Los Angeles-based CIM's effort to land $1B of public incentives for a mixed-use project that approximates what Amazon is wanting in a second headquarters. 

“Why are people even still ranking cities based on some arbitrary data points? It's almost September 2018 and this Gulch redevelopment has HQ2 written all over it,” Reddit user Tehndn wrote. “Deals are being made with actual dollar amounts. IMO (internet-ese for “in my opinion”) this is an open and shut deal and Amazon HQ2 is coming to Atlanta.”

Welcome to the world of Amazon HQ2 theorists.

The HQ2 Sleuths: Amateur Detectives Decipher Clues On Websites Dedicated To Predicting Amazon's Second HQ Location

Making predictions is as old as humanity itself. From tea leaves and sacred oracles to stock market algorithms and political pollsters, people have always had a need to know, and a need to know now and first.

The commercial real estate community routinely speculates over potential economic development deals, but Amazon's hunt for a second headquarters has taken on a life of its own unlike any past corporate relocations. Rampant discussions, theories and analysis of at times obscure public documents have blossomed on sites like City-Data.com and Reddit. The sleuths: a hodgepodge of people with varying degrees of intel and experience.

West End Neighborhood Development
West End Atlanta resident Michael Johnson

“Something this big, something credible should have been leaked by now. It's amazing how well they've kept it secret,” Atlanta West End resident Michael Johnson said. 

Johnson is among those convinced that Amazon has already zeroed in on Atlanta. He spends a couple of hours a week reading the Seattle Times' Amazon news and online sites dedicated to Amazon speculation. Johnson cites the move to install incentives on the Gulch development and AT&T's timing of moving out of one of the tallest skyscrapers in Midtown Atlanta, as his support.

“You just have a lot of different things converging at the same time,” Johnson said. “I know people are saying it's the D.C. area, but to me it's pointing to Atlanta.”

Johnson posts his theories along with many other it's-gotta-be-Atlanta proponents on Skyscraperpage.com. Like others on that forum, Johnson is not in commercial real estate — he is a paralegal for a local law firm. But he is active in his community as a member of West End Neighborhood Development, a group of residents and business owners in Atlanta's West End neighborhood focused on community development.

That gives Johnson an interest in what happens to the metro area overall, he said. He is motivated to find clues that appear to him to prove Amazon and Atlanta are a match made in heaven. It could open more career opportunities for him, maybe to become one of those 50,000 highly paid employees Amazon promises the winning region, and greatly improve the value of his West End home. 

“To me it would be bigger [than] when the guy said, 'It's Atlanta' for the 1996 Olympics. It would send shock waves not only through the technological community, but with lawyers. It's just going to affect every sector,” he said.

University of Miami political science professor Joseph Uscinski said this kind of speculation that pulls together diverse facts to validate a personal belief is supremely human. Uscinski, the 2014 co-author of "American Conspiracy Theories," has studied the behavior of those who engage in creating wild theories, mostly about American politics, such as the growing QAnon movement that is emerging among some Republican activists and supporters of President Donald Trump

That fascination for piecing together puzzles is partly the same motivation that gets people to speculate on where Amazon may land its second headquarters, Uscinski said.

“Now, this is a little bit different because Amazon moving into a city isn't a group of malevolent people trying to harm a city,” he said. “But you see this all the time with people online, trying to predict the next episode of their favorite [television] series. It's something very human to want to know. We wouldn't have a million media companies if people didn't want to know stuff.”

CIM Group
Bird's-eye view of the proposed redevelopment of the Gulch in Downtown Atlanta

Atlantans are not the only group seeking evidence that Amazon is headed to their city. Some forum users say Amazon's Super Bowl commercial for Alexa has evidence of the winning city — Alexa mentioned Austin at the start of the commercial.

A newspaper in Virginia in February noted that traffic for a particular story about the county winning a top environmental award from the U.S. Building Council received a spike in traffic from Amazon's Seattle headquarters. Could that be a sign?

Even the flight records for where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' $65M private jet has landed most often — in Northern Virginia — have been cited as evidence of where HQ2 may locate. 

“I've heard dozens of rumors and things that ultimately panned out not to be true,” The Boyd Co. principal John Boyd said. Boyd's firm is a corporate site selection consulting agency.

Boyd said he was told at one point that Columbus, Ohio, was going to be the winner. Or that Los Angeles was put on the list of 20 finalists because the area has the largest congressional representation in the U.S.

“In Atlanta, for example, one of the top commercial real estate brokers [told] me that an Amazon official whispered in his ear that the gay adoption bill is a non-starter,” Boyd said, referring to a controversial bill that would have allowed adoption agencies to refuse to work with homosexual couples based on religious beliefs. Deal vetoed such a bill in 2016.

“I can tell you the reality is no one knows what is happening right now. There's been radio silence to all 20 finalists,” he said.

You cannot tell that to Chris Bender.

Bender, a big data consultant in Atlanta, has been a frequent poster on various online forums, discussing his belief that Amazon is headed to Atlanta. His evidence includes how the Metro Atlanta region has been pushing for the expansion of its rapid transit system, MARTA, the investment bet CIM Group is making on the Downtown Atlanta Gulch and other huge gambles on downtown property by Newport and other investors, and the push for more public green space throughout the city.

“This has been unheard of prior to the HQ2 announcement,” Bender wrote.

Bender also cited a proposed ordinance coming up for a vote that would allow for electric billboards on mixed-use technology centers in certain parts of Midtown as evidence the city is scrambling to make way for Amazon.

“There's got to be a reason why it was turned down and now it's coming up for zoning,” Bender said.

He said he was later corrected by another online poster that the ordinance was specific to Coda, Portman Holding's high-tech tower underway in Midtown. 

Not all Atlantans believe the city is destined for the HQ2 title. Some say the tea leaves are skewed by people's hopes.

“People in Atlanta just assume that Amazon is coming to Atlanta,” Atlanta-based documentary filmmaker King Williams said. His 2018 film “The Atlanta Way” deals with issues of public housing and gentrification in Atlanta. He is also a contributor to Atlanta online business newsletter The Saporta Report. 

“This will be icing on top of the cake. Atlanta really wants the legitimacy as a tech hub,” Williams said.

Amazon HQ2 Anacostia Riverfront rendering
A rendering of the proposed Amazon HQ2 site on the Anacostia Riverfront, including parcels in Capitol Riverfront, Buzzard Point and Poplar Point

City Realty Advisors CEO Tim Holdroyd sees the online giant heading to Northern Virginia — a prevailing view among many experts. After all, Bezos recently purchased a home there. But Holdroyd said there are practical and business reasons for going to Northern Virginia.

“The reason is the Sherman Antitrust Act,” he said.

Amazon has been combating a growing concern that it is becoming a monopoly and could be forced to break up into different companies, like what happened in 1982 with the forced breakup of the Bell System into AT&T and a host of companies that ran local telephone services.

Going near Washington, D.C., with thousands of high-paying jobs could be Amazon's way to bide time against anti-monopoly forces.

“They're the biggest monopoly in the history of the United States. So if they go to Washington, that gives them four or five more years of goodwill before someone has to break them up,” Holdroyd said. “The goodwill of five or six years will allow them to make billions and billions of [dollars] more.”

Bender said he spends a handful of hours a week, often at night, sleuthing through databases for evidence to prove his thesis. And no matter what other story arises or evidence comes up that could indicate Amazon's preference for another of the finalist regions, he said he is secure in his prediction.

"You haven't heard the same type of activity … in other cities. You haven't heard of developers buying the land yet or getting the incentives in place and zoning to the level you had with Atlanta as well," Bender said.

In the end, Bender said his interest in Amazon's race for a second headquarters is because of its sheer impact on the city that gets it.

“It's the most transformative project probably in our lifetimes of all economic development projects. When the hell has there ever been a company looking at one city or one site for 50,000 jobs at this salary? That's a massive economic impact,” he said.

CORRECTION, AUG. 31, 2:30 P.M. ET: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the bill vetoed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. Deal vetoed the Religious Liberty Bill in 2016 that would allow adoption agencies to refuse business with homosexuals based on religious faith. Subsequent versions of the bill did not make it to his desk since. The story has been updated.