As Georgia lawmakers were in the final throes of another marathon legislative session, state leaders worked furiously to shore up Atlanta’s bid for a massive Amazon project that appears to have been damaged by election-year maneuvering.
An Amazon delegation scouted multiple sites in metro Atlanta on Thursday and Friday as part of its site search for a second headquarters and the 50,000 high-paying jobs it could bring.
The timing of the visit was coincidental, yet it still seemed fitting. After all, the specter of Amazon has shaped debate under the Gold Dome throughout the legislative session that ended early Friday.
And if Georgia were to become a finalist, as many national economic development observers expect, lawmakers could be called back for a special session.
Pat Wilson, the state’s commissioner of economic development, said in a statement that officials were “excited to have the opportunity to welcome Amazon to Georgia this week.”
Department of Economic Development officials declined to offer details of the visit.
State officials and corporate recruiters hope the high-stakes meetings helped rehabilitate Georgia’s bid for the project after two legislative decisions that observers say could have crippled Atlanta’s shot at the $5 billion campus. Both were orchestrated by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a GOP front-runner for governor, and timed to energize conservatives ahead of May’s primary
The first was a Georgia Senate vote to approve a measure that would allow adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples. Though the measure stalled in the Georgia House, it drew intense criticism from civil rights groups and other opponents who called it discriminatory.
The second was Cagle’s decision to make good on his vow to “kill” a lucrative tax break that would benefit Delta Air Lines after the carrier ended a discount program for National Rifle Association members. The move infuriated business boosters. Supporters said it was meant to send a message to a corporate giant trying to influence policy.
Major corporations have joined civil rights groups to fight fiercely against legislation they view as discriminatory, fearful so-called “religious liberty” bills could damage their ability to recruit top talent. Indiana and North Carolina suffered numerous business losses, from conventions to business expansions, in the wake of passing divisive social issue legislation that each state later repealed.
As the session ended shortly after midnight Friday, Cagle dismissed the importance of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ upcoming decision, which the company has said will come later this year.
Cagle pointed to a massive Facebook data center in the works near Social Circle, which will bring 100 jobs in its first phase.
“Many people feel like Bezos has already made his mind up … and that this is nothing more than an exercise,” Cagle said. “But listen, if it’s not Amazon, let me be very candid with you — Facebook just landed with us. We’re going to have a lot of opportunities.”
Others involved in Amazon’s recruitment still think Atlanta makes a compelling contender. For them, Amazon’s visit offered a chance to get off on a better foot with the Seattle-based giant.
Some media outlets have savaged Atlanta in recent weeks, and the city’s rivals are likely using the debates to pummel the region’s reputation.
And it gave state officials the chance to tout their version of the highlights of the legislative session, which include a mass transit expansion, an infusion of cash to the state’s k-12 education system and an income tax cut.
Asked about what message the session should send to Amazon, Gov. Nathan Deal was succinct.
“This is a state that’s a good place to do business,” Deal said.
“We’re a state that puts our priorities in the right place, stresses the importance of the education of its citizens and its young people,” he added, and offers tax relief as “often as is possible to do so.”
Atlanta the ‘best location for HQ2’
Like most everything else involving Amazon, the details of the visit were held as closely guarded secrets — though officials said they had prepared what’s described as an “elaborate” experience for the Amazon visitors.
What is known is that the state’s bid will top $1 billion in taxpayer-funded incentives and other perks. But the details are shrouded in secrecy under an exemption in state sunshine laws for active economic projects.
Joe Parilla, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview that Amazon offers “an unbelievable amount of potential benefit” to the winning city, but the hypercompetitive nature of the headquarters search puts cities at great risk of overspending on incentives.
Many state and national economic development industry insiders have said Amazon’s very public search is a way to extract a bounty of incentives from a city that might have been the front-runner from the very beginning.
Wilson, the state’s commissioner of economic development, said the state was excited to show Amazon all Georgia has to offer.
“As we’ve said before, we truly believe that metro Atlanta is the best location for HQ2,” Wilson said. “We’ve invested and prioritized in mobility, workforce development and education, which is evident in our thriving pro-business climate. Being able to showcase our exceptional assets firsthand will ensure that Georgia remains on their minds.”
Amazon started visiting contenders in recent weeks, touring sites around Washington, D.C., where the district and two suburbs are among the finalists. Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin also reportedly received Amazon officials.
Atlanta officials and their counterparts at the governor’s office, the state Department of Economic Development and outside organizations, such as the Metro Atlanta Chamber, eagerly awaited the Peach State’s turn.
On March 9, the AJC reported that Amazon was expected to tour sites in Atlanta and its suburbs before the end of the month. The company scouted downtown’s Gulch and multiple sites in Midtown as part of the visit, two of the people said. It’s not clear whether the Amazon crew toured locations outside the city or in other parts of Atlanta.
In the Gulch, Los Angeles developer CIM Group has proposed a mini-city that would more than accommodate Amazon’s stated need for 8 million square feet of office space. The AT&T Midtown Center campus and adjacent land controlled by Portman Holdings near Technology Square is also said to have been on the agenda for Amazon.
Several large parcels, including the former General Motors plant in Doraville and the High Street site in Dunwoody near Perimeter Mall, were seen as other possible locations for a visit.
KNOW WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON
Atlanta is one of the cities Amazon says is in the running for its second headquarters. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will provide continuing coverage of Atlanta’s bid to lure Amazon. Our journalism will focus on the urgent questions posed by this potentially transformative business deal. Follow this continuing coverage on AJC.com, MyAJC.com and PoliticallyGeorgia.com.