Amazon offers sneak peek at massive high-tech fulfillment center opening soon at Sparrows Point

This year’s holiday gifts ordered from Amazon could be delivered from the company’s newest fulfillment center in eastern Baltimore County.

Construction crews and Amazon workers are putting the finishing touches on the 855,000-square-foot warehouse — and the 11 miles of conveyor belts that will move a million items daily when it’s up and running.

“We’re getting very close,” said Tim Foley, general manager of the fulfillment center. “We’ll be open for the 2018 holiday shopping season, so right around the corner.”

The facility is a showpiece of Tradepoint Atlantic, the industrial and transportation hub that’s emerging through redevelopment of the shuttered Sparrows Point steel mill.

A joint venture of the Illinois-based liquidation and redevelopment firm Hilco Global and local investment company Redwood Capital, Tradepoint Atlantic is reshaping the 3,100-acre property that for generations was home to Bethlehem Steel. After a series of ownership changes, the mill closed for good in 2012 when its then-owner, RG Steel, went bankrupt.

The company that’s now Tradepoint Atlantic bought it in 2014 and agreed to spend at least $50 million on environmental cleanup as part of the site’s redevelopment. In addition to Amazon, Tradepoint is also home to a FedEx distribution center, an auto importing operation run by Pasha Automotive and a recently completed warehouse for Under Armour that will be used to fulfill online orders.

Amazon’s $225 million center went up quickly. It was just 10 months ago that the Baltimore County Council signed off on a conditional loan to help lure the e-commerce giant. The deal was part of an overall incentive package that tops $19 million, according to the Maryland Department of Commerce.

Amazon is receiving $2.2 million in conditional loans from the county and state that will be turned into grants if the company meets its promise of employing 1,500 workers at Tradepoint. The company also expects to receive about $8.25 million in state income tax and property tax credits over the next several years for job creation and for building in a state-designated enterprise zone.

Additionally, Amazon and its contractors are expected to save about $8.76 million in sales taxes through a state law that allows companies building at Tradepoint to not pay sales tax on construction materials and equipment.

The state also extended an MTA Local Link bus line to the Amazon center to accommodate workers. Eric Gilbert, Tradepoint’s chief development officer, said the transit service was key to getting the company to sign a lease. He called the bus line and other investments from the state a “huge boost” to Tradepoint.

The new fulfillment center is the size of 13 football fields. Its eventual workforce of 1,500 will store, sort, pack and ship up to a million items a day.

“When that is happening, it is nonstop activity,” Foley said.

Amazon officials offered a tour of the nearly complete facility to journalists and local officials Tuesday. In one part of the warehouse, empty boxes were shuttled across the vast space on conveyor belts during test runs; in another section, workers tested a robotics system that moves wheeled containers of merchandise called pods around the storage area.

At Amazon warehouses, workers don’t walk or ride carts up and down aisles to find items for a customer’s order. Rather, the robotics system brings the merchandise pod to a work station where a worker picks the item before sending the pod back.

Officials said Amazon uses what’s called “random stow logic theory” for storing merchandise. Rather than keeping similar items together as one might see in a retail store, a computer program figures out the optimal way to store items, using factors such as the size of the product.

The computer program knows which slots in the storage pods are empty, and will tell employees where to put incoming merchandise, officials said.

At Tradepoint Atlantic, Amazon will store items that are about the size of a microwave or smaller. Another Amazon facility at Broening Highway holds similar merchandise, while a center in Cecil County holds mostly shoes and clothes.

“We’re the everything store,” Foley said, noting that the Tradepoint Atlantic center will have 50,000 storage pods of merchandise occupying four floors at one end of the building.

The packaging and shipping system includes technology that’s proprietary to Amazon.

Amazon’s fulfillment centers are named after local airports. With “BWI1” already taken by the Broening Highway center, the Tradepoint Atlantic center is dubbed “DCA1,” a code referring to Reagan National Airport in Washington.

Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler attended Tuesday’s tour and marveled at the scope of the Amazon facility before adding his signature to a ceremonial desk.

He recalled how his former boss, the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, pushed for the redevelopment of Sparrows Point at a time when others were still hoping for steel to make a comeback. He remembered Kamenetz standing amid the derelict buildings when the sale of the property was announced.

Now the vision of Kamenetz, who died of cardiac arrest in May, is coming to fruition, Mohler said.

“This is a transformational project,” he said.

The fulfillment center at Tradepoint Atlantic is separate from Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters campus that will have up to 50,000 jobs. Baltimore submitted a proposal at Port Covington for the so-called “HQ2,” but it did not make the list of finalists. Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and Washington are each still in the running for HQ2.

Maryland has offered $8.5 billion worth of grants, tax credits and infrastructure improvements to Amazon in hopes of luring HQ2 to Montgomery County. A decision from Amazon is expected by the end of this year.

pwood@baltsun.com

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