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Brains, trains and games constitute Montgomery County's Amazon pitch

Given Amazon’s role in hastening the demise of traditional brick-and-mortar stores, it seems only fitting that one of the sites still in competition to host the company’s second North American headquarters is the 45-acre vacant lot once home to a popular Montgomery County mall.

A set of mannequins peered out through the glass facade of a Lord & Taylor last week at the fenced-in field of scrub and dirt where the White Flint Mall once stood.

Dorothy Whalen was one of the few customers at the department store Friday morning.

“This is the last store,” the lifelong Montgomery County resident said. “Everything else has been torn down.”

But from this rubble, some hope a new corporate colossus will rise. Montgomery County is one of the 20 finalists in the continental competition to win Amazon’s HQ2 and its promise of 50,000 jobs and $5 billion investment.

Now the online giant is embarking on a months-long examination to choose which community it will save to its cart.

Montgomery is the only county on the list of mostly major cities from New York to Los Angeles, from Miami to Toronto.

With bids from Baltimore, Old Goucher, Howard County and Prince George’s County eliminated from the competition last week, Montgomery County is Maryland’s only hope of luring the new Amazon headquarters.

It also has the awkward distinction of having to compete against two next-door neighbors: Fellow finalists Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

With one million residents, Montgomery County dwarfs many of the cities, and offers a geographic diversity that could be more appealing than the urban proposals.

“We combine rural, urban and suburban lifestyles,” County Executive Ike Leggett said after the finalists were announced Thursday.

The Hogan administration said it would submit a $5 billion incentive package combining tax incentives and infrastructure improvements to lawmakers on Monday to land the project. It would be the biggest economic development deal offered in state history.

The county landscape includes the bustling urban centers of Rockville and Silver Spring, with their apartment buildings, single-family homes and gated townhouse communities, the tony suburbs of Bethesda and Potomac, with their multi-million-dollar mansions occupied by the Washington elite, and bucolic rural expanses dotted by farms, lakes and nearly 37,000 acres across 419 parks.

“You get all those things in one,” Leggett said. “There is something for everyone.”

Plus, the county explained in its proposal, the rate of violent crime is lower than those of its competitors: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York — and even Amazon’s hometown of Seattle. (Careful, now.)

The county says Amazon employees would have easy access to three international airports in the region. Officials tout access to MARC train service, and call the Washington Metro “one of the best public transit systems in the country.”

Traffic is another question. In the version of the proposal released to the public, the section for cars and pedestrians is entirely blacked out. Officials say the redactions are necessary to shield the most competitive aspects of the plan from other communities, including traffic for specific roads.

David Petr, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp., was in Fairfax, Va., attending a morning meeting of officials from around the Washington region Thursday morning when mobile devices started purring with news of Amazon’s announcement.

“It was pretty electric,” Petr said — and the county is still abuzz.

Petr said the county’s success so far validates its approach to the competition. The authors of the proposal chose to highlight the local talent.

“We’re a very purpose-driven, very intellectual, very socially conscious workforce in Montgomery County,” Petr said. “One out of three residents here are foreign-born.”

The county is also highly educated.

In a section titled “Smartest U.S. Workforce,” officials boasted that “31 percent of county residents hold post-graduate degrees, the highest in the nation.” They also noted that 1,200 information technology and 500 bio-health companies are located in Montgomery County.

Petr said the workforce is filled with people from around the world who represent a diversity of thought and experience. He traveled to Seattle as he was helping the county prepare its proposal, and compared Montgomery’s residents to those of the Northwestern city in the intangibles of culture, philosophy and outlook.

Del. Bill Frick, a Montgomery County Democrat and majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, agreed.

“The Montgomery County workers are well educated, worldly and ideal for the knowledge economy,” Frick said. “They expect their careers to mean something. They don’t just expect to make dollar — they expect to make a difference.”

The county’s biggest employer is the federal government. The National Institutes of Health employs some 17,300 workers, Food and Drug Administration employs 13,130, and Naval Support Activity Bethesda — the installation that hosts Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — employs 11,690, according to the Maryland Department of Commerce.

Montgomery’s boosters touted the development of robotic cow milking in the county by Woodbourne Creamery at Rock Hill Orchard, the creation of the first rapid-detection test for ebola and the birth of two popular video games, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, by Bethesda Game Studios.

And the pipeline of talent trained at the University of Maryland and other regional colleges has built a network of 3,000 graduates with engineering degrees and 5,000 graduates in computer and information systems.

One of those engineers is Del. Aruna Miller, a Montgomery County Democrat. She said the county and the state need to encourage more students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics to expand the pipeline of talent available to Amazon.

She also said the county would need to expand its roads to accommodate the traffic that could come with so many new residents.

“Yes, traffic will be impacted, but we have the Metro which will play a big role in helping with transportation issues,” Miller said. “The county and state would have to invest in the county’s infrastructure.”

Amazon operates a distribution center in Baltimore and employs about 5,000 workers in Maryland already, not counting thousands of seasonal positions it fills during the holidays. Amazon customers can support nearly 21,000 charitable organizations in Maryland by shopping on AmazonSmile.

There are four Amazon sites in Virginia, two in the Washington suburbs, and 7,000 employees in the state. The company lists one site in Washington but does not say how many employees it has in the capital.

Leggett said last year that the former White Flint Mall site on Rockville Pike was one possible location for HQ2. County officials have since shied away from identifying any specific spot.

“I’ve heard White Flint has been mentioned as one of the areas,” said Amy Ginsburg, executive director of the Friends of White Flint. “If that is true, we think Amazon could not be better served. It is the perfect area. We have the space. We have the transit. We are close to highways. We could absolutely fit their space needs.”

The site just north of the Music Center at Strathmore is within walking distance of a Metro stop. Across Rockville Pike from Lord & Taylor, the North Bethesda Market features a Starbucks, a day spa and a Whole Foods — now owned by Amazon.

To the south, a less flashy strip of businesses includes a Big Screen Store, a jeweler, a dry cleaner and Hank Dietle's Tavern, whose entrance says it was established in 1916.

Fred Mamdouhi, owner of Dryclean Expo, said business has plummeted by at least 30 percent since the White Flint Mall was demolished over the past several years. If Amazon came, he is certain business would boom.

“Let’s hope they come,” Mamdouhi said. “That would be great.”

Local opposition to Amazon boils down to the most local of concerns: traffic.

“It does not appeal to me at all,” said Whalen, the Lord & Taylor shopper. “The traffic here is already terrible. If Amazon came it would be the worst.”

Charles Kane II commutes from Largo to his job at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville. He also mentioned traffic.

“I think the people who live here will not want Amazon at that site,” he said.

Justin Carmody, co-owner of Diamond Exchange next to Mamdouhi’s store, brushed aside concerns about traffic.

“Rockville Pike is already a disaster,” Carmody said. “Amazon would be good for everybody.”

Even for a small retail business, the type that often are wary of Amazon’s online dominance?

“We do a lot of online business now,” Carmody said. “That’s the trend. And Amazon is leading the way.”

In the end, Ginsburg said, winning Amazon will be “topic number one all over Montgomery County government and among every developer in town” until Amazon makes its decision.

Petr agreed.

“It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “I’m looking forward to hearing what they’re looking for in the second round.”

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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