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Despite Amazon Serving These Cities Lemons, They're Making Lemonade

They say what does not kill you makes you stronger, and several rejected Amazon HQ2 bidders are embracing the philosophy.

The nail-biting competition for Amazon’s second headquarters, which will house 50,000 Amazon employees and be the beneficiary of a $5B economic investment, is nearly won.

The tech goliath released its list of 20 finalists this month, with East Coast markets like Boston, New York City, Newark, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Miami dominating the list

Amazon's original headquarters in Seattle.
Amazon's original headquarters in Seattle

Though Amazon rejected proposals from 218 communities across North America, industry experts told Bisnow there is a silver lining for markets that participated in the four-month-long process and lost. City leaders can use the missed opportunity to Monday morning quarterback by discussing next-level goals and innovative future urban design initiatives.

“We’re going to see a new trend with larger, more new-age companies [using] a public engagement and marketing tool [when] looking for big footprints, expansion opportunity," Charlotte’s Carolina Fintech Hub spokesman and city council member Tariq Bokhari said. “We need to be prepared for that. We need to get better. We also need to continue engaging our city and defining our identity and who we are.”

Below are four reasons why losing HQ2 bidders remain optimistic after participating in Amazon’s arduous and very public RFP process.

Lesson learned: Size isn’t everything

Bigger is not necessarily better in Amazon’s world, as the fourth- and fifth-largest cities in the country, Houston and Phoenix, found themselves off the shortlist.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for Houston,” Greater Houston Partnership CEO Bob Harvey said. “While there has been growing momentum in the innovation space over the last couple of years, this is a clear indication that we have much more work to do as a region to grow our digital economy.”

Work will continue on the Greater Houston Partnership’s projects with Midway on the East River Site and McCord Development's Generation Park.

Greater Phoenix Economic Council President and CEO Chris Camacho touted a growing transit system, Arizona State University and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport as being among that city’s strengths.

“There is a laundry list of attributes that make this region stand out, but we were competing against more than 230 cities in North America, ranging in geographic location and some that offered very competitive incentive programs,” Camacho said in a statement.

Where to improve: Better transit means fewer traffic nightmares

Despite Amazon Serving These Cities Lemons, They're Making Lemonade

City officials everywhere are taking a hard look at transit infrastructure in the wake of Amazon's rejection.

San Francisco, for example, is looking for ways to catch up with its neighbor Los Angeles by adding traffic improvements to its to-do list. LA’s biggest edge includes a plan to improve transportation infrastructure, Bay Area Council Senior Vice President of Public Policy Matt Regan said.

“That is something we need to take a harder look at in the Bay Area,” Regan said. “Are we investing enough in transportation infrastructure to accommodate growth we’re experiencing and would like to experience?”

Ripple effect: Count your neighbor’s chickens

San Francisco was not the only city looking to LA for motivation. Irvine, California, did not make the shortlist either, even after offering a fully financed, rent-only deal. In fact, Orange County leaders said what’s good for LA is good for Orange County.

“We see the LA and Orange County economies as a continuum, and if Amazon selects LA, it will create a lot of opportunity for the workforce [in] the region, including people in Orange County,” Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Director of Public Relations Lawren Markle said in an email.

Silver lining: Time to move forward

Despite Amazon Serving These Cities Lemons, They're Making Lemonade
Portland skyline

Industry experts have long spoken of Amazon’s genius marketing plan and all the free advertising it has received by allowing bidders to pitch so publicly. But what about all the exposure from the bidders themselves? A Portland industry leader said their silver lining may have been all the attention.

“The exposure for Greater Portland as a location for HQ2 beats any paid advertising campaign we could’ve developed," Greater Portland Inc. CEO Janet Lebar said in a statement. "From the New York Times article, to today’s mention in USA Today — and the countless stories, blogs, tweets and even betting sites in between — the regional effort led by GPI let the world know that Greater Portland is open for business."

In North Carolina, Bokhari said city officials' effort to market rejected city Charlotte to Amazon was not wasted, but instead resulted in a viable discussion about who Charlotte is as a marketable city. “We started having a next-level conversation about our identity and who we are and who we want to be. That is valuable beyond this RFP,” he said. “I hope we continue on with that, and that’s the silver lining.” Bokhari is ready to pivot; he said moving on may include pitching Charlotte to Apple for its new campus.

Chin up, Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh offered to its residents.

“Baltimore is a great city and we will not let up in all that we’re doing to realize our full potential,” Pugh said in a statement. “In no way will Amazon’s decision slow our pursuit of a strong growth agenda for Baltimore, as we work to attract new investment, quality job opportunities and importantly, new residents to a city celebrated for its diversity, and its rich higher-educational, athletic, cultural, medical and maritime assets.”

Phoenix is moving on, too.

“While Greater Phoenix did not make the short list for this particular project, our team is diligently working with more than 300 domestic and international companies who are currently exploring metro Phoenix as an option for expansion or relocation,” Camacho said. “This market continues to be an attractive business destination, and we will maintain our efforts to market Greater Phoenix as a place where business can go to scale.”