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How D.C. Is Responding To Its Status As Amazon HQ2 Front-Runner

In the two months since Amazon selected its 20-city HQ2 shortlist, including three D.C.-area jurisdictions, the hype around the nation's capital has continued to grow, with numerous analysts, oddsmakers, journalists and others pegging the Washington region as the front-runner.

Amazon to D.C. Collage

Local officials and stakeholders remain confident about their chances in the $5B sweepstakes, but they say they are drowning out the noise and keeping their eyes on the prize. 

"I've been in the field a long time and seen a lot of deals," said Arlington Economic Development Director Victor Hoskins, previously the District's top development official. "Sometimes everyone says you are going to get [a company] and it goes someplace else. And I've been in places where people say you're never going to get it and then it shows up." 

The spotlight shined on the D.C. region immediately after Amazon's shortlist announcement included D.C., Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. Being the only region with three separate jurisdictions included must give D.C. an advantage, countless Amazon-watchers concluded. Plus, the only Amazon official quoted in the release previously led Montgomery County's Business Development Corp., another company tie to the region, beyond the D.C. mansion and daily newspaper Jeff Bezos owns. 

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

Then the statistical studies and expert surveys began to trickle out. Hamilton Place Strategies issued a report looking at 11 metrics in areas of transportation, education, business, lifestyle, culture and connectivity. D.C. earned the top spot in that report. A Zillow survey of over 100 economists and experts nationwide pegged the top two front-runners as Atlanta and Northern Virginia. 

Developments in recent weeks have potentialy made Atlanta a less attractive landing spot and D.C. more appealing for the tech giant. Georgia's legislature voted to remove a tax exemption for Delta, one of the state's largest companies, after the airline eliminated a National Rifle Association discount in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. 

"The only thing I've read that makes me more confident is Atlanta and the shenanigans they pulled rescinding the tax abatements for Delta," said Capitol Riverfront BID CEO Michael Stevens, whose neighborhood is included in one of D.C.'s proposed HQ2 sites. "If those local and state officials want to shoot themselves in the foot, that's great." 

The Washington region in recent weeks has taken landmark steps toward solidifying a long-term funding solution for its Metro system, progress that some observers think boosts the region's chances of landing Amazon.  

"Funding for Metro had been a big question mark," said Kyle Garman, a Northern Virginia-based technology executive who leads global business development for SAP and serves as limited partner for a venture capital firm. "Part of me says maybe that's the big nugget Bezos wanted before he was ready to make a decision." 

Garman, who said he is speaking on his own behalf and not his company's, wrote a blog post pegging Northern Virginia as the favorite for HQ2 after the shortlist came out. He said he has gained more confidence in that prediction in recent weeks and has seen a vast majority of tech executives agree that the D.C. is the front-runner.

Another minor development that bolstered Garman's confidence in NoVa was the post on local news outlet ARLnow that received thousands of hits from an internal Amazon page months after its publication, a revelation that drew national attention. 

"I would be surprised if they don't go to the D.C. area at this point," Garman said. 

D.C. Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner and Arlington Economic Development Director Victor Hoskins
D.C. Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner and Arlington Economic Development Director Victor Hoskins at a Bisnow event in November

Amazon reportedly toured the D.C.-area's sites in late February. Local officials could not comment on the specifics of the company's search process, with some adding that Amazon had them sign nondisclosure agreements. Considering past corporate relocation competitions he has been involved in, Hoskins said he expects Amazon to whittle it down to another, more narrow, shortlist before ultimately making a selection. 

Local developers have pushed officials to cooperate more so they do not get locked in a bidding war with each other, and leaders expressed a willingness to work together after the competition began. Economic development officials from the neighboring jurisdictions have been in contact about Amazon since the initial September request for proposals, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner said, but January's shortlist announcement accelerated that collaboration. 

"Since this new round when we were all shortlisted, that communication has intensified," Kenner said. "It has been great because everybody has been open and there are a lot of things this region shares ... transportation, universities and housing are things we all speak the same language on, they are good common ground for us to talk about." 

Kenner said he has avoided reading the tea leaves and has not put much thought into speculation over the HQ2 search. But he said the national attention is good for the region as D.C. tries to position itself as an attractive corporate headquarters destination and could help make other companies consider D.C. in future searches. 

"The fact that Amazon has taken probably what most people would call an untraditional approach to this process I think has helped," Kenner said. "To have everybody writing about this, and the fact that many people believe that Washington or other jurisdictions anchored by the Washington region are favorable, I think that that’s positive."

PwC Mid-Atlantic Managing Partner Terri McClements, who is based in McLean and oversees a 6,000-person office, also sees the national attention as valuable for the D.C. region. 

"I think it's fabulous to have the region talked about, especially as it relates to a company with brand presence thinking about relocating and being in Washington," McClements said. "It helps raise awareness of what fits within our community. It's all accretive in my mind."