Could Charlotte take a run at the new Amazon HQ?

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Corporate giant Amazon has announced that it’s looking for a second headquarters — and speculation is already running wild on where it might go.

Over the coming weeks, America’s cities will be rushing to put together a compelling proposal.

Will Charlotte join the frenzy? Should we?

The economic impact would be staggering.

Amazon says the second headquarters will be equal in importance to its current HQ in Seattle.

Projections are for 50,000 employees, more than the number of local workers at Bank of America and Wells Fargo combined. The company is going to be spending $5 billion on this.

At full build-out, this new Amazon campus would be its own mini-city, with as many as three dozen buildings, more than 8 million square feet of office space and 24 restaurants or cafes.

Amazon’s downtown Seattle headquarters campus. Image via Amazon

Amazon’s must-have list is short, and Charlotte checks all the boxes.

This is from the company’s request for proposals.

A metro area of more than 1 million people. Check.

“A stable and business-friendly environment.” Sure. North Carolina always makes these kinds of lists.

“Urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent.” Well, we have both urban and suburban locations. Strong tech talent? Nobody would say Charlotte has the strongest case here, but the talent pool is growing. Charlotte also might be close enough to the Triangle to claim that market for these purposes.

“Communities that think big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options.” Don’t just look at our apartment complexes and cross Charlotte off the list. If Charlotte’s economic development and urban design people truly worked on this, they could make it happen.

There are plenty of other advantages that Charlotte has. There’s the major international airport. It’s ideally situated at a major interstate crossroads in the Southeast. The cost of living here is low. There’s a generally good quality of life.

And then there are some vague similarities between Charlotte and Seattle. Both are on the lists of fast-growing major cities that millennials are moving to in droves. Both are closing in on 1 million in population within city limits.

And both cities have downtowns dominated by a single company. In 2015, about 13 percent of Seattle’s downtown office space was controlled by Amazon. That put the city second to only Charlotte, which had nearly 23 percent of its prime downtown office space controlled by Bank of America.

bank_of_american_buillding_and_statue

The new Amazon HQ would be on a scale Charlotte hasn’t even dreamed of.

Charlotte has an economic development apparatus, but it isn’t accustomed to a project of this scale. Neither the Charlotte Chamber nor Charlotte Regional Partnership would comment for this article.

Five years ago, Charlotte rolled out the red carpet for Chiquita to move its headquarters here. They ended up bringing only about 300 jobs on a few floors of the NASCAR Plaza building before selling the company and abandoning ship.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts called the new Sealed Air headquarters a “record-breaking” corporate investment as they built a new campus near Billy Graham Parkway. It’s home to about 1,200 employees in three buildings.

The Amazon project would require a site that’s far beyond the economic drivers we’re used to considering, as well.

Camp North End is a 20-year project that’s having a huge impact, but will top out at about 1.5 million square feet of office space.

The former Eastland Mall site has also long been in need of a company to put a headquarters there. But at 80 acres, it’s far too small for anything of this scope.

It feels weird to downplay significant gets like all of these, but that’s what a company the size of Amazon does.

The second Amazon HQ is more on the scale of a new and (significantly) bigger Ballantyne.

The Ballantyne Corporate Park as it stands today includes about 4 million square feet of office space, though it could go up to 6.5 million with future expansion. Amazon would need more than this, but it’s a reasonable way to think about things.

espn-ballantyne

Could Charlotte even find the space?

It’s possible.

My mind immediately jumps to the River District in planning along the banks of the Catawba River, near the airport. It’s already been described as the “next Ballantyne,” and it’s still early enough in the process to shape it to Amazon’s specifications.

Right now, the developers are planning something like 4.5 million square feet of office space, the same as Ballantyne Corporate Park. This could presumably be expanded.

Image by Cooper Robertson

Uptown could perhaps pull together enough space, and Amazon seems to prefer a more urban location. Bank of America is still leasing huge chunks of space in new office towers, but there’s enough construction projected in the central business district over the next few years to make this a reasonable prospect. Banks fueled Charlotte’s first downtown boom. Maybe e-commerce could fuel the next one.

Concord. The former Philip Morris plant here is now in need of a new tenant after battery maker Alevo announced that it’s shutting down. It would take some work to convert 2.5 million square feet of manufacturing space to a corporate office park, but it’s doable. The site is huge — 2,100 acres — and close to I-85.

South Carolina. This might be the best bet. Companies looking for big campuses are increasingly looking south of the state line. South Carolina is more willing to pony up for corporate incentives, and htere’s all the land you could want once you get out to Indian Land and Fort Mill.

A big looming question: Can Charlotte play nice with its neighbors?

Amazon is specifically looking for one bid from a metro area, meaning the city of Charlotte would have to be on board with Mecklenburg County and the state of North Carolina. There’s enough dysfunction at this point between all of those groups that makes this doubtful.

The deadline for a response is October 19. Could Charlotte get its act together in time to present a compelling proposal?

So, does Charlotte have a shot?

Not to kill your buzz, but I don’t think Charlotte has enough to land the Amazon HQ. Charlotte doesn’t quite seem to have enough.

There’s a good workforce to draw from, but it’s not loaded with tech talent like other cities. It’s cosmopolitan, but still second-tier. The cost of living is attractive, but not necessarily distinctive. There’s no way North Carolina would pony up enough in incentives to swing a decision.

Plus, there seems to be a general fatigue right now around chasing big, ambitious projects. Not that long ago, there was lots of talk about bringing in the Democratic National Convention, the Super Bowl, maybe even the Olympics.

I don’t feel that anymore. Some of that is good — there’s more attention being paid to inequality and opportunity at home. Some of it feels like complacency.

But something like an Amazon HQ is nice to dream about. Landing the project would put Charlotte on the map in a new industry. Atlanta is showing up on lists of tech hubs. Amazon would put Charlotte right there with the big boys.

Too bad it likely won’t happen.

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Andrew Dunn
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