Amazon is looking for a city to build its second headquarters – a $5-billion project that will bring roughly 50,000 jobs to the successful applicant – and local officials are eagerly putting Ottawa’s name forward.
“I’ve been in this business for 25 years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bid this big. Fifty-thousand people in one city. This is an economic development managing director’s dream,” says Blair Patacairk, Invest Ottawa’s managing director of investment and trade.
The tech juggernaut released its ambitious request for proposals Thursday, asking cities and regions across North America to make the case for hosting and sustaining a campus comparable to its current Seattle headquarters.
Amazon has touted the economic benefits of their first HQ as a selling point for cities and economic development agencies to apply for “HQ2.” Among them, an estimated $38 billion in indirect economic benefit over the past six years in Seattle, as well as $3.7 billion of capital investments and infrastructure, $43 million paid into the city’s public transportation system through employee benefits and 233,000 annual hotel visits by visiting Amazon workers and their guests.
Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Austin, Memphis and Los Angeles are among the cities that Bloomberg predicts will be among the main contenders. However, Mr. Patacairk says Canada’s capital has several advantages.
Amazon set up shop in Kanata a bit more than a year ago. At last report, 30 people now work in that office, largely on the company’s voice-activated Alexa home assistant. Mr. Patacairk says he and Invest Ottawa were working with Amazon for the past two years to make that move happen, and he’s confident in that relationship.
“They’ve recognized that Ottawa has the talent base to grow part of their business,” he says.
Talent top of mind
Amazon listed a number of requirements in its RFP that Mr. Patacairk says Ottawa is well-suited to fill.
Topping that list is talent. As many as 50,000 jobs will need to be filled at HQ2, Amazon says, and the successful applicant will have an appropriate workforce and educational system to sustain these roles.
Ottawa has a precedent for hosting massive companies, Mr. Patacairk says, pointing to Nortel as an example. At its peak, the firm had more than 20,000 employees.
Additionally, he says companies like Amazon have a “halo effect” that will draw more talent, both from existing companies and from outside of the city.
Mr. Patacairk points to the partnership between Shopify and Carleton University, where students earn their computer science degrees through on-the-job training, as the type of program that would give Amazon confidence in the stream of talent available in the city.
Major research centres such as the National Research Council and the Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks are well-aligned with Amazon’s goals, he adds.
“These are people working on blue-sky thinking and disruptive technology.”
Talent has been a concern for existing business owners for many years, but the city has proven it is capable of surprises and drawing workers when it’s needed. Mr. Patacairk points to Dell’s (albeit short-lived) debut in Ottawa when it drew 1,500 new workers over the course of 10 months.
The city’s latest attempts to brand itself as a hub for autonomous vehicles are another example of its capacity to attract major companies.
“If I go back six or seven years, and you ask me, ‘Blair, do you think Ford would ever come here?’ I would’ve told you no. Despite my hopes that they might, we are not an automotive city.” Today, the story is different, and Mr. Patacairk sees no reason why Ottawa can’t be the foundation for Amazon’s next big move.
Space and infrastructure
Amazon requires a space of at least 500,000 sq. ft. for the first phase of its development launching in 2019, but will need as much as 8,000,000 sq. ft. for the campus by the time it’s completed an estimated 15-or-more years later.
Mr. Patacairk has several sites in mind that he’d like to see Amazon fill. Space in Kanata and Barrhaven, while a bit removed from the downtown, would have enough accommodation. He speculates there’s room for infill in the downtown as well, and says the lands being offloaded by the federal government are prime for Amazon occupancy.
There are major selling points in Ottawa’s infrastructure that separate it from major metropolitan centres such as New York, Toronto or Vancouver. Congestion on Highways 416 and 417 never nears the levels of Toronto’s 401, for example. The coming light-rail transit also acts as a selling point, providing the ability to ferry workers from downtown to the aforementioned communities without significant delay.
Perhaps Ottawa’s greatest selling feature, Mr. Patacairk says, is the cost and quality of life. Ottawa’s schools, access to healthcare and affordable real estate separate it from the skyrocketing markets of Vancouver, Mr. Patacairk says.
Selling companies on foreign-direct investment often comes down to selling the family on living in a city, he says; Indeed, “community/quality of life” is listed on Amazon’s RFP.
“You need to look at Ottawa. We have all the pieces that you need to bring you here, set you up, grow your company and scale.”
With municipalities and states across North America bidding on the right to host the golden tech company, government incentives will be key to winning Amazon’s favour.
Mr. Patacairk says it will require input from all levels of government to win the bid, but specifically highlights the Ontario government as a necessary partner. He was making phone calls to Queen’s Park earlier today, he says, sorting out next steps. Mr. Patacairk says Invest Ottawa has also received encouragement from the city’s municipal leaders.
Proposals are now open and will be accepted until Oct. 19. Amazon says it will announce a winner sometime in 2018, and phase one of the project is expected to commence the following year.