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Why Didn't Amazon Choose Columbus? City Leaders Weigh In

The Amazon Spheres at the online giant's corporate headquarters in Seattle, Wash., in an image dated Feb. 21, 2018. (Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock)

By Adora Namigadde, WOSU

News that Amazon will build its new headquarters in the suburbs of New York City and Washington, D.C. came as no surprise to political and business leaders in Columbus. Though they're disappointed in the results, Columbus leaders hope to capitalize on the fact the city even qualified as a finalist.

The location of Amazon HQ2 was a mystery for a year, with more than 200 cities applying for the opportunity. In January, Amazon selected a list of 20 finalists, and Columbus was among them. Some national prognosticators gave Columbus a legitimate shot, but it did not happen.

“Although we’re disappointed we didn’t get this, Amazon has a pretty strong presence in Central Ohio,” said Mayor Andrew Ginther on Tuesday.

Ginther and other city leaders say they are not entirely sure why Amazon passed on Columbus. Director of Development Steve Shoeny says the city and private sector partners will meet with Amazon down the road to discuss why.

“We haven’t had a debrief with the company yet, so I really don’t have any information to share on that,” Shoeny says.

In its original search for a new headquarters, Amazon listed strong workforce, affordable cost of living and access to mass transit as important consideration factors. Two out of the three seemed a good fit for Columbus, which has a relatively low cost of living compared to other finalists. Shoeny says the city also has the employment base.

“We have a strong workforce and we more importantly have the ability to generate additional workforce with our great post-secondary institutions around Columbus,” Shoeny says.

There's just one area where the city pales in comparison. New York City and Washington, D.C. both have extensive public transportation systems and national airports, which Amazon highlighted in their  announcement Tuesday.

Shoeny admits Columbus lacks in this area. As part of the city's bid, they proposed a Transit & Mobility Fund that would be paid for by income tax withholdings on Amazon employees. 

“What we looked at as a positive, actually, is we don’t have a legacy system that we’re burdened by," Shoeny says. "So we would have the ability to build something new."

Among those new systems were "street solutions" and autonomous vehicles, which are also a focus of Columbus' Smart City initiative. Ginther says the city is working on improving transportation options.

“I haven’t heard from Amazon directly about that," Ginther said. "They take into account lots of different things. I know one of the things was direct flights, and we’ve added two since this process started, to Seattle and Salt Lake City."

Columbus proposed Amazon sites in Franklinton, Easton and The Ohio State University. The city’s bid included tax incentives that would have amounted to more than $2.3 billion in savings for Amazon over 15 years.

Irene Alvarez of the Columbus Partnership says the business organization will keep working to improve the city’s market competitiveness.

“We’ll continue to expand air service, we’ll continue to build our Smart City technologies, already well on our way," Alvarez says. "Advanced mobility options for moving around people and things."

City officials say it is disappointing that Columbus was not chosen, but that the city is more visible after becoming an Amazon HQ2 finalist.

“We’ll continue to compete," Alvarez says. "We’ll be working with 100, 150 companies at any given time who are examining our market.”

Even though Columbus did not land the big HQ prize, Amazon has a large presence in Central Ohio. Its data and fulfillment centers employ some 6,000 people in the Columbus area.

Ohio also got an Amazon consolation prize when the company announced plans to build an air shipping operation in Wilmington, at the site of the DHL shipping facility that closed 10 years ago.