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Baltimore unveils failed bid to lure Amazon headquarters

Baltimore used a lushly designed website to offer itself up to Amazon — unsuccessfully, it turned out — as a place where the online retailer could reshape the city by bringing its second headquarters and a promised 50,000 jobs to the Port Covington waterfront.

“The HQ2 project will be — in the right place — an opportunity for true urban revitalization and community invigoration. Establishing its headquarters in Baltimore, a majority African American city, is a public statement of Amazon’s investment in diversity and inclusion,” the city wrote in its pitch, which was unveiled Wednesday.

“HQ2 will transform the lives of the current generation of Baltimoreans, give hope to the next, and permanently tie Amazon to the renaissance of one of America’s greatest cities.”

At a time when Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has said Baltimore has a perception problem and that she wants to change the narrative about the city, the proposal to Amazon is in many ways a distillation of the way the city’s political and business elite would like it to be seen.

Economic development officials said they will repackage the Amazon bid, pulled together over five weeks in the fall, and use it to market the city to other companies.

Marcus Stephens, chief branding officer for the company behind Port Covington, said that the overarching idea for the proposal was to bring Baltimore to life.

“Baltimore is an experiential city,” he said. “It’s a city that gives you a much different experience than what you read about. We wanted to bring that to life in the presentation.”

The first thing visitors to the website see is a video whisking them through a day in the life of a young woman in the city. It captures much of what makes Baltimore lovely, showcasing harbor scenes and new developments near the water. It also shows off things Under Armour’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, has brought to the city — his company's offices, redesigned water taxis and the Sagamore Pendry Hotel in Fell's Point.

The rest of the website touts Baltimore’s well-educated work force, low cost of living and the potential for Amazon to get off to a quick start with the hundreds of millions in pre-approved public subsidies at Port Covington.

The site devotes a few lines to crime, noting that the Port Covington area “has very low crime rates, as do the surrounding neighborhoods of Locust Point, Westport, Fells Point, Federal Hill, and Riverside.”

And while it boasts about the Baltimore region’s having one of the largest transit systems in the nation, it doesn't note that the long-planned Red Line light rail project, depicted in a transit map in the proposal, was killed a few years ago.

Amazon set off a frenzy in September, when it announced plans to build a second headquarters in North America and invited cities to bid for the project and its $5 billion investment.

To Baltimore officials, Port Covington seemed like an ideal home for the new offices. Plank’s private development company has proposed a massive mixed-use development there anchored by a headquarters for the Baltimore-based athletic apparel brand. The state lined up to back the proposal, pledging billions of dollars in subsidies.

The proposal released Wednesday shows that the city was not planning to offer up any incentive money beyond the existing Port Covington tax increment financing deal, and the state’s offer was redacted from the public version.

Allison S. Mayer, a spokeswoman for the state Commerce Department, said further details would be released at the time “that is strategically advantageous to the state.”

Officials previously declined to release the Baltimore proposal, saying they didn’t want rival cities to have a chance to look at it or for Amazon to be influenced by outside commentary on it. The city rejected a request under Maryland’s Public Information Act because they said the proposal was actually submitted by the Port Covington developer and they didn’t have a copy.

When Seattle-based Amazon announced a short list of 20 jurisdictions last month Baltimore was the only major East Coast city not to make the cut. An Amazon executive provided a debriefing to city leaders, but they came away saying they still didn’t have a clear idea why Baltimore had been rejected.

Tom Geddes, the CEO of Plank Industries, an umbrella company that includes the developer of Port Covington, said that in the weeks since, he and other people involved in the pitch have come to think that Amazon’s biggest concern among the factors it laid out in its request for proposals was that they’d struggle to quickly find workers with the tech skills they need in Baltimore.

“Talent will flock, but you need a pool you can fish in today,” Geddes said. “It’s was clear from the earliest stage of the RFP that it was the top priority.”

Bill Cole, the head of the Baltimore Development Corporation, said talent also struck him as important for Amazon, but he also said an early worry he had was about Baltimore’s transit network.

“We know we already have existing transit issues, that connecting people to jobs is a big issue for us,” he said.

Other jurisdictions in Maryland, including Howard and Prince George’s counties, also mounted unsuccessful bids. Only Montgomery County is still in the running, and Gov. Larry Hogan has promised to help Amazon to the tune of $5 billion if the company opts to set up there.

Geddes said if Montgomery County or Washington, D.C., which is also among the finalists, were to be successful there would likely be big gains for Baltimore and that business leaders already are looking at how the whole region could be good for Amazon.

“Our goal then, kind of selfishly, were Montgomery County to be successful or D.C., would be to figure out how can we plug Baltimore in and make sure Baltimore gets as much economic activity out of that as possible,” he said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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