Howard County to pitch Columbia for Amazon HQ2

A third Maryland municipality is making a bid for Amazon’s coveted second headquarters, joining a crowded national competition for a $5 billion investment and its promise of 50,000 jobs.

Howard County is drafting a proposal and incentive package to sell Amazon on the Columbia Gateway, a 920-acre business park along Interstate 95 that is ripe for redevelopment. The proposal will also include sites in downtown Columbia, though exact locations are still being ironed out.

At the same time, Howard Hughes Corp., the Dallas-based developer that is leading a redevelopment of downtown Columbia, plans to submit its own proposal. Howard Hughes said it would also participate in Howard County’s bid.

Since Amazon announced plans this month to invest up to $5 billion in a second campus, municipalities large, small and in between, from all over North America, have been drafting proposals. Baltimore City and Prince George’s County both intend to bid. In what will inevitably be a crowded field, economists and municipalities vying for the technology behemoth said Maryland should offer up as many sites as are feasible.

“I’ll take a bet that Amazon will have 500 sites to choose from,” said David Iannucci, senior economic development adviser to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker. “If there’s a dozen from Maryland — good.”

With so many proposals, the early stage of whittling down options may be a little like playing the lottery, said Anirban Basu, an economist and CEO of Sage Policy Group in Baltimore.

“Wouldn’t you want to have as many ping pong balls in that lottery basket as possible?” he said.

Basu said he sees no harm in multiple proposals coming from Maryland, so long as the state makes clear it will put its entire weight behind any location Amazon chooses.

Gov. Larry Hogan has said he will personally lobby Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to set up shop at Baltimore’s Port Covington, where Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s private real estate firm, Sagamore Development, already plans a massive $5.5 billion redevelopment.

At the same, Hogan has committed to supporting any municipality that wants to bid.

"The governor believes Port Covington is a tremendous site, and the state will be supporting efforts to bring the Amazon HQ2 to Baltimore City,” Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said in a statement. “As the governor has said, he would welcome Amazon to any location within Maryland, and the state and the Department of Commerce will work hard on behalf of any jurisdiction submitting a proposal."

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, meanwhile, is eager to see other jurisdictions rally behind Baltimore’s bid.

“When Baltimore wins, the entire region and state of Maryland wins,” Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement. “There is a growing consensus from many leaders in surrounding counties and the state that Baltimore is the strongest competitor for this incredible opportunity.”

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said he would love to see Baltimore or Prince George’s County selected for Amazon’s headquarters, if the company passes on Howard County.

“I don’t think we’re competing against each other as much as people think,” he said.

In a public request for proposals, Amazon said it is seeking a location ideally of at least 100 acres that is within or close to a metropolitan area of at least 1 million people. Proximity to airports, major roadways, public transportation and a vibrant community where workers will want to live are also on Amazon’s wish list.

Kittleman said he thinks Howard County ticks off many of those boxes.

“We’re considered the best place to live in America,” Kittleman said. “Not only would we be able to provide a strong workforce, we would be the place where employees who work for Amazon are going to want to live.”

Columbia Gateway offers plenty of space — probably more than needed — for Amazon to spread out, he said.

Located at the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 175, the 920-acre Columbia Gateway is largely composed of sprawling office buildings and surface parking lots, though much of the area is undeveloped.

COPT CEO Stephen Budorick said the Columbia-based real estate investment trust will support Howard County’s bid, as well as bids by Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

The Columbia-based real estate investment trust has property in Baltimore and College Park, and sees strengths in all those locations.

“We are in support of Maryland in this pursuit,” Budorick said.

The proposal also will include space downtown that could be connected to Columbia Gateway by a bus system. Exact downtown locations have not been determined, but the county is considering property within the Merriweather District, a 68-acre crescent-shaped area being developed by Howard Hughes, Kittleman said.

Howard Hughes will gladly work with Howard County on its proposal, said John DeWolf, an executive vice president with the company. But the company also intends to submit its own bid to turn the the property it controls in downtown Columbia into a modern, urban campus for Amazon.

“What makes us as a company unique is we like to refer to ourselves as the masters of community master planning,” DeWolf said. “We understand, aside from just putting offices together, what the entire surrounding area should look like.”

Howard Hughes has 113 acres in Columbia, 84 of which can be built on. DeWolf said he’s confident the company could meet Amazon’s demands for office space, retail and a lively residential community within that space.

Other Maryland jurisdictions in the race will pose stiff competition for Howard County because they share assets: proximity to airports and highways, strong universities and a deep bench of talented workers, Basu said.

Still, the county has potential to be a contender.

“If the question is does Howard County have something to say, is there a story they can tell Amazon that’s compelling,” Basu said, “the answer is yes.”

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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