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Small Cities, Like Grand Rapids, Have Big Dreams Of Landing Amazon HQ2

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The retail giant Amazonis looking for a second home.  And that could mean thousands of jobs, and a new economic anchor for a city.  But cities like Denver and Atlanta are competing, but as we hear from Rick Pluta, leaders in some smaller cities think they have a shot – if only they can get Amazon’s attention.

Tuscon, Arizona, uprooted a 21-foot-tall saguaro cactus and tried to have it delivered to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.  Birmingham, Alabama, constructed giant Amazon boxes and placed them around the city.  The mayor of Kansas City bought a thousand items online from Amazon and posted reviews of each one. 

The retail giant Amazon is looking for a second home and there are a lot of contenders trying to land the project being called “H-Q-2.”  At stake are many thousands of jobs and a new economic anchor for the winner.

“Yeah, we’re seeing all kinds of stunts,” said Ron Starner, the executive vice president of Site Selection magazine, which is devoted to following news and trends from the world of locating factories, warehouses, and headquarters.  

Several big cities such as Denver and Atlanta are seen as front runners.  But, there’s also a host of smaller cities where leaders think they have a shot - a very long shot  - if only they can grab Amazon’s attention.

“Tuscan sent the cactus,” said Starner.  “The mayor of one city, and forgive me. I don’t recall, he actually traveled to Seattle and stood outside Amazon headquarters.  There’s a community here in the suburban Atlanta market that even annexed a whole bunch of land and said, 'Look if you come here, we’ll let you call this Amazon City.'”

There’s also plenty of videos of mayors asking Amazon’s voice recognition personal assistant Alexa where the company should locate.  Guess what the answer is. 

So, what is this $100 billion company looking for?  It’s request for proposals lists a lot of things, including a metro area of a million or more people, access to mass transit, and proximity to an international airport.

But, the reality is there’s probably no North American metro area that has everything Amazon’s looking for – especially a ready-to-go workforce of 50,000 professionals.

That gap leaves economic development officials in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, they think they have a chance.

The city does not have light rail mass transit, but it has a bus system with dedicated lanes.  But local officials say the region has other assets that should make it attractive.  

The city is just half an hour from Lake Michigan.  It boasts a walkable downtown with plenty of restaurants and brewpubs, museums, and entertainment venues. 

Kristopher Larson with the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority acknowledges the city is a longshot but hopes the quality of life here will grab the attention of a certain Amazon CEO.

“And we’re hoping it’s going to turn Jeff Bezos’s head, and he’s going to take a look at us.” 

But that’s not all, says Birgid Klohs withThe Right Place, another regional economic development group.  She says this is a learning experience.

“Just to be in the pool to us is success,” she said.  “We want to tell our story.  We want to give Grand Rapids and west Michigan national attention by going for this.”

And that could grab the attention of other companies looking for a place to locate.  So, Klohs says Grand Rapids can’t lose by trying to win Amazon.

“This is something we have to do,” she said.  “We owe it to our community that we, that we put our best foot forward.”

In hopes that an online retail prince will slide a glass slipper onto that foot to make the city an economic Cinderella story. 

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— Rick Pluta is the Managing Editor and Reporter for the Michigan Public Radio network.  Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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