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Amazon didn’t pick Denver for its HQ2, but the company is not leaving Colorado empty-handed

Here's what Denver and Colorado gained, learned and lost from the Amazon HQ2 experience

Amazon opened its first warehouse in Colorado in 2016. This is its second one, a 1-million-square-foot facility that opened in 2017. It employs about 1,000 people during peak season. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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Welp, it’s official.

Denver didn’t get Amazon’s second headquarters, the 50,000 “high-paying” jobs, the $5 billion in investment or the major economic windfall — or massive headache, depending on whom you ask.

Amazon notified the public in a news release at around 8 a.m. Mountain time, or roughly 12 hours after The Wall Street Journal said “people” told the newspaper that Amazon was splitting HQ2 between Long Island City, New York, and the Crystal City neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. Combined, the two regions offered Amazon about $2 billion in financial incentives.

The Seattle company also named Nashville, Tennessee as the new location for an “operations center of excellence” with 5,000 new jobs. In return, Tennessee offered Amazon $102 million in incentives.

Sam Bailey, who handled the state’s bid as vice president with Metro Denver Economic Development Center, said Amazon called him just before 8 a.m. The conversation was brief and no reason was offered for not picking Denver, he said.

“They’re committed to coming back and providing direct feedback on Colorado’s response to HQ2,” Bailey said. “It could be anything. How we approached the process. It could be that our population size was not enough to satisfy the needs of the project. That’s the conversation we’ll have with the company.”

Bailey, who got married and celebrated his first anniversary during the 14-month process, said the project helped the agency fine-tune its own process of working with out-of-state companies interested in moving to Colorado. Even if Amazon had a preference for the East Coast before it began the HQ2 effort, Bailey doesn’t hold it against the company.

“I think for them, this was a pivotal moment for the company. They were looking to expand,” Bailey said. “When you look at scaling to 50,000 jobs, you need a substantial population. We can’t change our time zone. We can’t change our population overnight. That may be an area that was highly important for the company. But the things we can change is how we invest in public schools and infrastructure.”

Metro Denver, a private agency that works with area economic-development officials, also used no taxpayer dollars on the bid. It spent about $250,000, which excludes salaries of full-time staff, Bailey added.

Based on a nondisclosure agreement that remains in effect for three years, he declined to share details of what Colorado offered Amazon or what Amazon asked for.

While there’s no sense in rehashing why Denver should have been picked — or why it’s best that it wasn’t — Colorado doesn’t come away with nothing.

For better or worse, heres what was gleaned from the process:

Amazon knows the details of at least eight properties in the metro area

The state’s official response to Amazon had the eight featured locations, plus a list of 22 others. The sites, however, were never publicly shared because state officials said doing such would violate its nondisclosure agreement with Amazon. Locations submitted by the region were included just in case Amazon was looking for a good site to put a data center, another regional office or who-knows-what.

Amazon has a pretty good idea of how much money Colorado will offer a company considering moving its corporate headquarters to the state 

Of course, we do, too. State incentives are limited by law and are based on performance. The most popular one, a tax credit for companies that prove they created new jobs here, can be calculated using the information posted here. While the state never shared the exact financial figure offered to Amazon, Bailey had earlier said incentives could exceed $100 million.

Colorado was all about a team effort

The 70 cities represented by the private Metro Denver Economic Development Center trusted the agency to handle the Amazon bid on behalf of the region, not just Denver. The agency vetted proposals submitted by the cities but never shared which sites were featured. Even the city of Aurora, which has two Amazon fulfillment centers, didn’t know whether its proposed locations made the list. They probably did, since the state treated its bid as not just a proposal for HQ2, but a bid for other Amazon developments.  Read Colorado’s proposal here.

We had a governor who never seemed to believe Denver would nab HQ2

A few days after Amazon picked Denver as a finalist on Jan. 23, Gov. John Hickenlooper told the City Club of Denver, “I’m not going to cry” and “There will be a sense of relief if they choose somewhere else,” as reported by then-Denver Post reporter John Frank, who’s  now with The Colorado Sun.

In late October, Hickenlooper reaffirmed his belief, telling Colorado Public Radio, “I think there’s a possibility we’re not in the running.”

There was a vocal community that wanted Amazon to pick Colorado because of the jobs

That community also saw the possibilities of a a marquee brand in Denver and the city’s inevitable rise to meet the challenge of growth. Some wanted Amazon to pick Denver so badly that they launched ColoradoLovesAmazon.com. Supporters include executives from Delta Dental, SendGrid and the Colorado Rockies, as well as a group of senior citizens from Centennial.

There was a vocal community who didn’t want Amazon to pick Colorado

Their sentiment, which focused on the impact to housing prices and transportation, questioned why public incentives were even being considered. But there was no organized anti-HQ2 effort in Colorado, other than a few newspaper editorials and tweets.

Denver scored tons of HQ2 attention

Starting with The New York Times naming Denver as the front-runner just days after the competition was announced, the city was suddenly in lots of news articles. The New York area, by the way, ranked ninth, while the Washington, D.C., area was in the top four. According to Metro Denver EDC’s tally:

  • 2,969 articles written about metro Denver and Amazon HQ2.
  • 94 percent of the articles by national publications.
  • 3.3 billion media impressions.

Amazon expanded in Denver anyway

So far this year, the retailer opened its third metro-area fulfillment center (a Thornton warehouse where robots work alongside humans), a 37,000-square-foot Boulder office to house its advertising team, the nation’s second Amazon 4-square store (at the Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree), and two temporary delivery hubs in Colorado Springs and Centennial. Amazon has at least 2,200 employees in Colorado, and it planned to hire 2,000 more temporary workers for the holiday season.

This story was corrected at 6:38 p.m. on Nov. 13, 2018 to say  the city of Nashville was an HQ2 finalist. This story was updated at 10:26 a.m. on Nov. 13, 2018 with comments from the Metro Denver EDC agency.

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