The courtship is getting serious for Virginia to woo Amazon to build its second world headquarters in Northern Virginia, one of 20 urban areas in North America on the short list for a project that could produce a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs for the winner.
The Seattle-based retail colossus released a list of potential sites on Thursday that it had winnowed from 238 competing regions, including the Richmond area and Hampton Roads, which may have boosted their profiles for future economic investments and projects despite missing the cut for to compete for HQ2, as the massive project is known.
But the opportunity for Virginia is not just the four sites the state pitched last fall in the Northern Virginia suburbs in an extraordinary economic development sweepstakes that Amazon launched on Sept. 7. The company also chose potential sites on the north side of the Potomac River in Washington, and Montgomery County, Md., which are part of a larger “mega-region” with Virginia that is positioning itself for economic growth.
Like Washington and Montgomery County, Northern Virginia offers an educated workforce and proximity to both the Washington Post — owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos — and the federal government.
“Our first choice would be Northern Virginia, but our second choice would be the greater Capital region,” said Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
DuVal, a former secretary of commerce and trade, said landing the Amazon headquarters in Northern Virginia “would be a statewide win for the commonwealth,” similar to the benefit of the Port of Virginia to all regions of the state.
The Greater Washington Partnership, a new business alliance of corporate leaders from Richmond to Baltimore, called the inclusion of three sites from the national capital area “a strong and unambiguous signal that our region has an enormous amount to offer.”
But now the stakes are higher on the poker table for Virginia’s elected leaders and economic development officials, who will have to sharpen their pitch and sweeten the undisclosed package of financial incentives they are offering Amazon to choose one of the sites offered in Northern Virginia for a project expected to have a multibillion-dollar economic benefit beyond the direct headquarters investment.
“There has to be a much, much deeper dive around incentives,” said former Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore, who orchestrated the regional responses by the Richmond area, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads at the Amazon deadline in mid-October.
Amazon’s decision to include Northern Virginia on the short list came less than a week after Haymore’s former boss, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left office, but the effusive former governor celebrated by tweet on Thursday: “Thx to all who put in hard work to get us here. Let’s close the deal and bring it home!”
Gov. Ralph Northam, who took office on Saturday, also hailed the announcement as the payoff for “an unprecedented level of local and regional collaboration,” as well as a close working relationship between the McAuliffe administration and leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
“We look forward to a continuing partnership with our Northern Virginia communities to show Amazon and job creators all over the world that the commonwealth is the best place to locate and grow,” Northam said in a statement that also included comments from assembly leaders and local economic development officials in Alexandria, and the counties of Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington.
State and local officials have not publicly released information about the 10 sites proposed for the project around the state, including four in those Northern Virginia localities, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch published them in early October based on information from sources closely involved in the effort.
The package includes two Arlington sites in Rosslyn and Crystal City, the Potomac Yard in Alexandria, and the state-owned Center for Innovative Technology property straddling the Fairfax/Loudoun line near Washington-Dulles International Airport, according to the sources. “I have no idea,” said Ed Albrigo, president and CEO of the CIT, which sits on property the state is preparing to put on the market because of its prime real estate location.
Similarly, unlike other states in the hunt, Virginia hasn’t disclosed any of the financial incentives it already has offered as part of the regional packages, which included three sites in the Richmond area and three in Hampton Roads.
“I regret you are asking questions that, for competitive reasons, I can’t answer,” said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, whom DuVal described as “the quarterback” of the state’s play for the Amazon headquarters.
Assembly leaders also won’t discuss the proposed incentives they already have seen brought to the Major Employment and Investment Commission, a panel of senior legislators that reviews any project involving $10 million or more in state incentives.
House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, a member of the panel, said Thursday he expects the commission to get another look at the state’s proposals after Amazon provides more information and the economic development partnership revises its package.
“My feeling is that the offer might be enhanced at that point in time,” Jones said.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City, a member of the panel and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement he and other legislators on the MEI commission “look forward to working with Amazon and our state, regional and local partners to show the company that Northern Virginia is the best location for HQ2.”
Leaders in the Washington region say Virginia legislators could help their chances by approving a budget proposal by McAuliffe to raise $150 million in annual funding for the beleaguered Metro system, which also is counting on sustainable support from Maryland and the District of Columbia to improve and maintain the transit system.
“There’s no question Amazon needs a well-functioning transit system, making the imperative for all three jurisdictions to act together on Metro to provide dedicated funding and real governance reform even more urgent,” said Jason Miller, CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership.
The partnership also has made a priority of boosting the broader region’s supply of trained talent, which relies on many of the nine universities from Virginia, Maryland and D.C. that met recently in downtown Washington to discuss their roles in developing the skilled workforce for high-tech companies including Amazon.
“We are a talent-rich place and, honestly, that should be the number one concern for a company like this,” said Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason University, one of the presidents who attended the meeting convened by the partnership.
“There is a very, very strong correlation of leading research universities and the competitiveness of the region,” Cabrera said Thursday.
The Richmond and Hampton Roads regions didn’t make the cut for what Jed Kolko, chief economist at job site Indeed, called “a long list, for a shortlist.”
But both regions may have helped themselves by competing with proposals for potential sites, which in the Richmond area included Tree Hill Farm in eastern Henrico County, city-owned property on North Boulevard in Richmond, and the 160 acres snuggled in the expressway system outside of Richmond in Chesterfield County.
The Greater Richmond Partnership wouldn’t confirm its role in wooing the project to the region, but President and CEO Barry Matherly said, “Our work on the project helps lay the critical foundation for our strategic efforts in attracting a new Fortune 1000 company to greater Richmond.”
Haymore said an Amazon official texted him on Thursday to congratulate Virginia leaders for including proposals from the two long-shot regions in the state’s package and complimenting them for the sites they offered.
“It was a nice acknowledgement of what the Richmond area and Hampton Roads did,” he said. “This was a great team effort.”
Henrico County Manager John A. Vithoulkas wouldn’t publicly confirm the Tree Hill site as a contender, but he said Thursday, “I think we’re better for having gone through the process.”
“The region’s name is clearly out there.”