Amazon briefs Baltimore officials on failed HQ2 bid but doesn't give specific reasons for rejecting proposal, officials say

An Amazon executive briefed senior Baltimore officials on the city’s failed bid to host the retailer’s second headquarters but didn’t offer specific reasons why the city fell short, according to a summary of the call the city released Friday.

The company provided its feedback in a conference call this week. Mayor Catherine Pugh said the conversation with Amazon was upbeat — perhaps a little too much so.

“It was so complimentary that we started asking very pointed questions: Where did we fall short? Did crime have anything to do with it? Tell us where we fell short,” the mayor said. “They kept focusing on the positive progress Baltimore has made, talking about STEM education and transit. They did not point out any negatives. They planted the seed for future partnerships.”

A summary of the call by Susan Yum, an executive with the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s economic development agency, indicated that Amazon didn’t think Baltimore was ready to host its new office complex, which it says will eventually be home to some 50,000 workers and involve a $5 billion investment. The company instead said that it thought investments and initiatives underway in the city could open the door to potential future work with the company.

Conjecture about Amazon’s reasons for passing on Baltimore has focused on the city’s high crime rates and perceived inadequacies with its public transit system, topics city representatives on the call with Amazon sought to raise. Any concrete comments from Amazon about where Baltimore didn’t measure up likely would have become touchstones in future debates about how to improve the city.

Instead, city officials and the public seem to be left to wonder.

The city suggested locating what Amazon called its HQ2 at Port Covington, the massive waterfront redevelopment project proposed by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank in partnership with Goldman Sachs.

Yum said that officials are planning to publicly release Baltimore’s entire bid for Amazon in coming days. It previously declined to do so, rejecting requests under Maryland public information law because, it said, the bid was made by the Port Covington developer, a private entity.

State and local officials as well as representatives from Port Covington poured hours of work into the proposal in the fall. Yum wrote that Amazon praised the bid as “one of the most creative, innovative and comprehensive proposals they received.”

The availability of a large-scale development close to the center of the city also appeared to give Baltimore a unique edge. But when Amazon named 20 places as finalists on Jan. 18, Baltimore was not on the list, even as every other major city between Boston and Washington made the cut. Montgomery County is the only Maryland jurisdiction still in the running, as are D.C. and Northern Virginia.

Prince George’s County, Howard County and Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood also submitted proposals, but it was the Port Covington bid that drew the backing of Gov. Larry Hogan. His administration is now throwing its weight behind Montgomery County and has proposed a $5 billion incentive package for Amazon.

Other cities have received similar briefings from Amazon, according to local news accounts, and officials in Detroit have said they were told that access to talent and transit were reasons for their city not making the shortlist.

The Amazon executive, who was not identified in the summary, invited local officials in Baltimore to keep in touch, dangling the prospect of a future collaboration. The city is already home to a large Amazon distribution complex.

Yum said the company was excited by investments Baltimore was making in its education system and expected them to pay off in the future.

“The company noted that for their overall process, transit, accessibility and tech work-force readiness were key driving factors and that Baltimore was clearly investing in those areas, which would be helpful for future potential partnerships with Amazon,” Yum wrote.

A spokesman for Amazon could not be reached for comment.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, was on the call and confirmed the account provided by the BDC.

“There was an interest from some folks on the call to address the elephants in the room around crime, which obviously we’re focused on and working hard at, and transportation,” Davis said. “I think the rebuttal that came from Amazon was to pivot and talk about the positives.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, BDC President Bill Cole, and Tom Geddes, CEO of Plank Industries, which owns the development firm behind Port Covington, also took part in the call.

Geddes said through a spokesman that he appreciated Amazon’s feedback and took away from it that the company was excited to learn about the Port Covington development. The work put in to respond to the company’s request for proposals will not have been a waste, Geddes said.

“Amazon was always an exciting prospect, but the work that was done in response to the RFP will be extremely valuable to the city in their ongoing economic development efforts,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this story.

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