Ranking the 20 Cities for Amazon’s HQ2 From Least to Most Likely…

By | January 27, 2018

The Pretenders…The only reason Amazon released a “short list” of 20 cities rather than the 10 (or less) they were actually still considering is to further interest and keep people glued to this quasi-insulting “Bachelor”-esque real estate show. Although I have to admit that it’s a little fun pitting cities against each other, and I suspect that’s at least half the reason NFL fans care so much if the Buffalo Bills beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, or whatever cities they’ve never been to are playing that week. And the only thing I know for sure is that my current city of Los Angeles will not be getting a hot tub date with Jeff Bezos.

20. Los Angeles…Amazon claims that criteria they’re looking for is affordable and available housing, non-congested areas for further expansion, good public transit, and low traffic. So I guess that pretty much rules L.A. out right off the bat, and most seem to think it makes little sense to put HQ2 on the West Coast, and an Eastern or Central time zone is almost a prerequisite. There’s a reason L.A. is the sole pacific time zone city still in the race, and that probably shows where Bezos’s thinking is. Plus, LA’s successful bid to host the 2028 Summer Olympics means it’ll already have its hands full with massive construction projects that’ll tie up traffic and drive up real estate prices and construction costs.

19. Toronto…Unfortunately, America and Canada are still two separate countries. [Although not for much longer if my most popular YouTube video has anything to say about it.] But what showcase for why they shouldn’t still be than this? Toronto would absolutely be in the top-tier running if not for the simple fact that it would be a massive pain in the ass to have HQ2 be in a separate country with separate taxation, regulation, healthcare, and trade policies (although many are cheaper and more favorable to American companies). Plus, it’s not exactly a P.R.-coup for Bezos the way almost any other city (that actually creates jobs in America, where his company is coming under increased scrutiny for monopolistic practices) would be. There would likely be intense political blowback for picking Toronto.

18. Columbus…I don’t even know why we’re talking about this other than Bezos decided to throw the Midwest a few bones by pretending to consider their second-tier cities. This city is too small and doesn’t have the large airport or population stated as a prerequisite.

17. Pittsburgh…Same.

16. Indianapolis…Also, same. His shortlist really should’ve been a Top Ten rather than Top Twenty.

15. Philadelphia…The worst of all possible worlds. It’s got the attitude, congestion, and bad real estate of New York, but nowhere near the ability to draw top talent, as this is one of the most economically depressed cities in America. If Bezos really wants to build in that congested Northeast corridor, he’ll most likely do it in Philly’s long-time nemesis Boston. If he announces that the day after Tom Brady beats the Eagles for a record Super Bowl ring, you might see mass violence break out in Philly…and it might take you a week to notice the difference.

14. New York City…It’s just not feasible given NYC’s real estate availability and affordability, although it would be easy to attract top talent to live there since they already do. And that’s a bigger problem for Bezos: NYC won’t kiss his ass, since HQ2 just wouldn’t really make that big of a difference there. It’s just another huge company in NYC, and not really the prize it would be for another city.

13. Newark…The fact that Philly, Pittsburgh, NYC, and Newark are all still in the running makes me nervous to rank them all so low since he might really be considering something in the tri-state area. But out of all Northeastern cities, Boston just makes the most sense. And Newark went public with its 7 billion dollar tax incentive package (Amazon recently said it wants to keep details private), which could trigger personal blowback for the infamously uncharitable Bezos—the richest man in world history—if he accepts that whereas Mark Zuckerberg was giving 100 million to Newark’s school system only a few years ago. I doubt Amazon wants to build a headquarters where picketers will be outside chanting “you don’t have money for schools but you do have it for Bezos.”

12. Miami…This would easily be ranked higher if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that it’s falling into the ocean. Between flooding and hurricanes, this city’s real estate is only going to get worse, and too many flights get cancelled out of Miami Dade airport (due to weather) for it to offer reliable transportation to Seattle and back. I probably would’ve ranked this even lower except that Bezos went to high school in Miami, and that may stir up some sentiment (although more likely he would pick Texas for those reasons).

11. Denver…It’s a little remote—looking at these cities on a map, this city is awful lonely—and not close enough to the East Coast area Bezos is clearly favoring with his picks.

10. Chicago…The first city that almost makes sense since building here would surely attract all the right headlines (“Savior Bezos brings fresh money to crime-plagued city”), and—most importantly—it offers good transit routes and is the hub of United Airlines, surely a draw since they’re looking for a place that offers lots of flight options to Seattle, and you can barely book a cross-country flight to Seattle without passing through Chicago. Still, I’m getting the sense that he really does want to be in the Northeast or Southeast, and is looking for a city that’s home prices are cheap because it’s a city on the rise rather than a city that’s home prices are cheap because folks are emptying out to move to the Sun Belt.

9. Nashville…The best of the also-rans since it offers close proximity (and transit routes) to Amazon delivery rival Fed-Ex (based in Memphis), cheap home prices, available real estate, decent weather, and an artistic scene that wouldn’t make top tech talent balk at moving to a red state. Still, the Texas cities or Atlanta make more sense overall if you’re going to build in the South.

The Real Contenders…These eight have a legitimate shot at getting HQ2, although which one is at the top varies depending on which report you read. And I suspect different cities may be paying to have positive mentions written here and there. That’s why you’ve come to the right place for trusted news since no one pays me ever.

8. RaleighPros: East Coast location, great weather, solid home prices, close to the D.C.-metro area Bezos appears to be coveting, relatively little traffic, and Raleigh’s location could make it an easy shipping point for both the Sun Belt-South and the lucrative Northeast corridor. It could be a good compromise between the D.C.-area and Atlanta. Cons: Who wants a compromise? Does Bezos seem like a guy who’ll split the difference between D.C. and Atlanta because he can’t make a decision? I would say no. He’s probably picked the city before he even started doing this “competition” and we’re all just playing catch up. Plus, ex-Governor, current A-hole Pat McCrory’s LGBT discrimination laws made a lot of Hollywood productions move to Atlanta instead. That would set off my alarm bells that political instability may eventually scare away top tech talent. Odds: 20-to-1

7. Montgomery County, MarylandPros: That no less than three of the top contenders are virtually on-top of each other (the nebulously named “Northern Virginia,” DC, and this) shows Bezos is serious about this location. Cons: And any rational thinking would have to show this is the worst of the three for Amazon HQ2. It’s got some of the highest home prices in the nation, bad traffic, bad weather, poor access to a major airport, etc. If Bezos is really dead-set on this area, but not being fully in DC, then Northern Virginia makes way more sense. Odds: 10-to-1

6. Washington D.C...Pros: 1. Bezos also owns the Washington Post. 2. He’ll be in the land of powerful politicians that can hurt Amazon’s growth if they ever bother to crackdown on its monopoly. 3. The public transit is good. Cons: 1. And TWP doesn’t make Bezos 1/100th what Amazon does, so I doubt he feels the need to spend more time micro-managing the paper. 2. And those same politicians might rather he had chosen to create jobs in any of their home districts rather than add to D.C.-congestion and high housing costs. There’s a reason DC-based lobbying firms were created, so Amazon doesn’t have to be there doing it itself. 3. The public transit has to be good because most people can’t drive to work in less than 2 hours. Traffic gridlock, sky-high housing, and just the simple question of “Where would you put the damn thing?” make this option less likely. Not to mention that being that close to the federal government is not always a good thing for a tech (and burgeoning media) company trying to expand its reach globally, and Trump (Bezos’s biggest and, so far, only serious political critic) spends most of his time in Florida anyway. Odds: 7-to-1

5. “Northern Virginia”Pros: Out of the three D.C.-based locations, this one makes the most sense. The housing prices are likely cheaper, there’s likely more space, and outgoing Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe likely submitted the best proposal of any city in the running. He’s a whip-smart operator that probably knew the exact right incentives and location (it’s rumored he pitched a location beside Dulles airport) to pitch, and Virginia’s economy and business climate are booming. Not to mention, Senator Mark Warner—who made his fortune in telecom—might appreciate Amazon creating jobs in his constituency when considering whether or not to pursue anti-trust legislation. Cons: Just where the hell is it? Sure, Bezos may be thinking about getting ahead of anti-trust legislation, but he’s also got to run a massive company, and I’m not sure how he’ll draw top MIT and Stanford graduates to “Northern Virginia.” I know, I know, there’s lots of tech and defense contractors based out there, but anti-virus programmers and consumer-minded-tech designers aren’t always the same people, and might look for different things in a city. Putting Amazon in a relatively small-town next to the airport seems like an admission that people will be flying elsewhere as often as possible. Odds: 6-to-1

4. BostonPros: Culturally, it makes the most sense, and it’s easily the East Coast’s version of Seattle, a literate, tech-friendly city that produces a high rate of college graduates and a high standard of living for the East Coast. Cons: And also a high cost-of-living since Boston is hands-down more expensive than my top 3 picks. And true, Harvard and MIT are based there but Bezos went to Princeton, so he may not be all that impressed with Boston’s colleges (good colleges are everywhere, plus many Boston graduates want to leave the area as soon as possible to get out of that bone-chilling weather) and especially their attitude. It’s rumored they didn’t offer anywhere near the incentives other cities did (or any), and they wrote Bezos an open letter asking him to help with the city’s transit and housing problems. I’m just thinking a guy who has barely given a nickel to charity doesn’t really have a civic-minded “ask not what your city can do for me, but what I can do for your city” mentality, and their guidelines clearly state they’re interested in incentives. Odds: 5-to-1

3. AustinPros: Amazon’s recently-acquired Whole Foods is based there, it’s culturally a great compliment to Seattle, and Jeff Bezos is one of the largest land owners in Texas, so he clearly favors the place. Plus, the city has a tech-friendly vibe that’ll make it easier to recruit top SF-based talent (it’s technically more populated, way bigger, and has cheaper homes). Cons: Austin is completely landlocked and in the central time zone when Bezos clearly wants HQ2 to be somewhere on the East Coast or Eastern time zone, and it is a much, much smaller metro area than Atlanta (twice its size) and Dallas (three times its size), Plus, it’s airport is medium-sized whereas Dallas and Atlanta also swamp Austin in that department too. It beats those two cities in traffic, but not much else, and if I were Bezos, I would be a bit leery of putting HQ2 less than 4 hours from the Mexican border with Trump in the White House. God only knows what schemes his feverish brain will cook up to make construction and zoning a nightmare. [Sample tweet: “Bad guy Bezos uses cartel construction companies to build HQ2. Very bad! America can’t build wall but will build Amazon?! Will investigate further!”] Odds: 5-to-1

2. DallasPros: A fantastic airport that’s one of the busiest in the country, and home to smaller airport that’s not half bad either. Oh yeah, and American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are based there. Also, Texas has no income tax, an extraordinarily pro-business economy, and Dallas has avoided the natural disasters plaguing much of the state (floods in Houston, droughts everywhere else). And even though many think Austin is the more likely Texas city, what sense does it make to build there when most flights would likely have layovers in Dallas? If Bezos has a sentimental attachment to Texas (though he grew up in Houston), and since he owns a huge swath of it you may think he likes it just fine, then this makes the most sense. Plus, it’s the home base of his outspoken buddy and Amazon shareholder Mark Cuban. Cons: Like Austin, this is also a landlocked city firmly in the central time zone, and it doesn’t make total geographic sense for what Amazon’s needs are. Odds: 4-to-1

1. AtlantaPros: Think about what Amazon really and truly is and what it’s becoming: not just a tech company with lots of growth in AI but also a shipping company to rival Fed-Ex, a retail killer to rival Wal-Mart, and an upstart media empire to rival Hollywood. Well Fed-Ex is based in Memphis because the Mississippi River has great shipping access, Wal-Mart is based in Bentonville Arkansas because it gets to be a big fish in a small pond (and its target audience was rural America), and Hollywood is based in L.A. because at that time there was nothing out there and they could film cheaply (and it was far enough away from New Jersey-based Thomas Edison that his patents on film couldn’t be enforced). When their industries or companies came to these cities they were looking for a place they could build up, and Amazon will find it in Atlanta. 1. Atlanta has fantastic transit routes for Amazon products (as Atlanta-based UPS can prove) and especially a world-class airport that is the hub of Delta Airlines. 2. It’s relatively cheap housing and room for growth will allow Amazon the best of both worlds, as it’s just big enough to attract top talent (Atlanta’s location hasn’t hurt its ability to draw top talent, as it currently has the third-largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies), but not so already-made that Amazon can’t plant a footprint. 3. Georgia has the third most TV and Film production after NY and CA, so Atlanta is a natural headquarters for Amazon’s growing media business and it won’t hurt being close to the headquarters of telecom giant AT&T either. [If it’s bid to buy Time Warner succeeds, it may make a deal with Amazon to allow it use of TW’s Atlanta-based studios like Turner Broadcasting or Amazon can hire the same people to build their own damn facility.] Bonus reasons: 4. it’s the last American city to host a Summer Olympics, which proves Atlanta can make space for big projects when it needs to. 5. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal refused to sign the Georgia legislature’s anti-LGBT bill once he saw how much business North Carolina lost after they signed theirs, which means he’s amenable to business pressure and it won’t be as hard to recruit top tech talent to a red state. 6. Facebook just announced a massive new data center project in Atlanta, meaning the city will have the space and technical means to support Amazon’s massive cloud computing business. Bezos may be afraid that if he doesn’t build in Atlanta, Zuckerberg will. Cons: This makes so much damn sense that it may not happen for just that reason. Also, none of Bezos’s other ventures are based there (like Austin-based Whole Foods and all his Texas real estate holdings or DC-based Washington Post), but since he literally drove cross-country from his then-home of NYC to start Amazon in Seattle (where he wasn’t born, raised, or educated), I just don’t think personal attachment is a big focus. And his insistence on easy airport access and frequent flights probably means he’ll be checking on those Texas and DC investments more often than living there full-time. Odds: 3-to-1

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