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Hey Amazon, what about us? Spokane-area joins competition for retail giant’s second headquarters

Long known as a secretive company, Amazon has lived up to that reputation during its search for a spot to put a “full equal” second headquarters and some 50,000 employees. It’s downtown Seattle campus is shown here. (Associated Press)
Long known as a secretive company, Amazon has lived up to that reputation during its search for a spot to put a “full equal” second headquarters and some 50,000 employees. It’s downtown Seattle campus is shown here. (Associated Press)

Spokane is joining the stampede of cities competing to become Amazon’s second headquarters.

The city’s business recruiters are still crafting their pitch to the e-commerce giant with plans to emphasize Spokane’s proximity to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, lower cost of doing business, quality of life and strong educational system.

Spokane also must show it has the “vibe” to attract young adults, said Todd Mielke, the chief executive of Greater Spokane Inc.

He’s heard secondhand that Amazon executives give Spokane low points in that area. Mielke said the information came from local business leaders who’ve had recent meetings with Amazon officials.

He said Spokane can make a compelling case that young adults already find the area desirable. The local labor market’s fastest-growing segment is 18 to 34 year olds.

Either way, it’s a long shot Amazon would select Spokane.

Amazon announced in September that it was looking to build a second corporate headquarters in North America. The chance to land a $5 billion headquarters and 50,000 jobs over the next 10 to 15 years has set off a frenzy among economic development officials.

Cities large and small are courting the online retailer. Amazon expects to choose a location in either the U.S. or Canada next year.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for some metro area,” said Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis.

Five reasons Spokane can tout in its bid to Amazon

The city could list all of these reasons in attempt to gain tech giant’s attention in its search for site of second North American headquarters. | See the list »

But Jones said Spokane and other midsize metro areas don’t meet some of Amazon’s top criteria.

In the request for proposals, Amazon indicated a preference for a metro area with more than 1 million people, an international airport, and mass transit options.

“Those jump out at me right away,” Jones said. “They are all challenges for Spokane.”

If Amazon could overlook those deficits, the Spokane area could make a compelling case for having the vacant land for Amazon to grow, he said.

In Seattle, Amazon built its headquarters downtown. More than 40,000 Amazon employees work in 33 buildings. The company is looking for 100 acres in its new location, with a 500,000-square-foot building to start and about 8 million square feet in the future.

While Spokane doesn’t have that kind of space in the city’s core, it may be possible to find space close to the downtown, Jones said.

Jones also ranks the region’s concentration of colleges and universities as an asset for Amazon and other employers looking for a trained work force. Including Washington State University and University of Idaho, there are eight colleges and universities, he said.

To reach the 1 million population figure, Mielke will include communities within a 40-minute drive from Spokane as part of the metro area. He’s reached out to other municipalities for input on the proposal, which is due Oct. 19.

“We’d love to have Amazon’s second headquarters in Spokane,” Mielke said.

But even if Spokane doesn’t advance in the selection process, Mielke said, the proposal is an opportunity for the region to get Amazon’s attention. Given the company’s rapid growth, there could be other opportunities for Spokane to attract a piece of its business, he said.

“They state clearly they’re looking for a stable and business-friendly environment. There’s been a lot of speculation about their concerns with the Seattle City Council,” Mielke said of Amazon executives. “We believe we have a business-friendly environment to offer.”

Over the past two decades, more than 45 Seattle-based companies have relocated to Spokane or opened offices here, Mielke said.

“It’s very competitive. These things always are,” said Grant Forsyth, Avista Corp.’s chief economist. “But if you don’t put your name in the hat, you’ll never get any chance at all.”

Forsyth said Spokane’s mix of public and private K-12 schools would be a selling point to Amazon employees, who would be interested in what the community has to offer their children, Forsyth said.

He thinks the area’s cost of living could be attractive, too. Not everyone who works at Amazon earns a $100,000 salary, Forsyth said. For employees working in warehouses or customer service areas, Spokane’s cost of living would make it easier to afford rent or buy a house, he said.

“I think any of the people Amazon would hire would love Spokane,” said Rich Hadley, who spent two decades as GSI’s chief executive before retiring.

Spokane has assets that are becoming hard to find in Seattle, such as affordable housing and headache-free commutes, he said.

Hadley applauds GSI’s work, but notes that speculation points to a central U.S. location for Amazon’s second headquarters.

“If you listen to the people on the morning news, they’re mentioning names in the middle of the country,” Hadley said. “The indications are for a central headquarters and distribution (center). … I’ve heard Minnesota’s Twin Cities mentioned, and Ohio.”

Mielke said he’s been trying to find out if Amazon is looking for geographic diversity in siting the new headquarters, or simply the next place to absorb the company’s rapid growth.

Amazon has encouraged communities to “think big” in their pitches to the company.

For Forsyth, Amazon’s request for proposals represents an opportunity to acquire the tech jobs that passed by Spokane earlier, enriching other Northwest cities.

Amazon and other tech-related companies have “changed the demographics of Seattle,” he said. “There have been growing pains, but they’ve also created enormous amounts of wealth.”

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