Denver Failed To Land Boeing. Now It's Using Lifestyle To Woo Amazon
Sixteen years ago, a Seattle-based company said it planned to move its headquarters to the city that would make it the best deal.
The company was Boeing and it ultimately chose Chicago over finalists Dallas and Denver.
Now, another Seattle company, Amazon, wants to open a second headquarters elsewhere in North America. This time, Denver's leaders are determined to avoid a repeat of the experience with Boeing.
At stake: as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs and billions of dollars' worth of investment in the already fast-growing region.
Amazon's list of requirements includes a highly skilled workforce, major universities, an international airport and mass transit — all ingredients that Denver has. Just as important, Amazon says it is looking for "a high quality of life" for its employees.
Denver shows up high on many lists of potential Amazon finalists, including a recent analysis by The New York Times.
Compared with 2001, Denver's downtown these days is filled with even more trendy restaurants and breweries. It also has plenty of marijuana dispensaries after Colorado became the first state in the country to allow recreational pot shops.
The region has invested billions in mass transit, while millennials have surged into the state for jobs in the high-tech and energy industries.
"The sunshine is one of my favorite parts," said 25 year-old Abigail Scott, who was sunning herself last week while on her lunch break. Scott moved to Colorado two years ago from Florida. "I like that the mountains are visible almost all the time from the city. It gives you a little reminder of what you get to go to."
The outdoorsy Colorado lifestyle is a central part of the city's pitch to Amazon.
"Few places in the United States, in the world, combine our great business climate with our great quality of life," said J.J. Ament, the CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.
One factor that worked against Denver when it sought to woo Boeing was that the region's various towns and cities didn't work together to come up with one regional bid and instead offered competing pitches to Boeing. This time, Ament said the localities have worked together from the outset and the state has more economic incentives available.
While many cities are offering Amazon larger tax breaks and more cash upfront than Denver is willing to put on the table, Gov. John Hickenlooper says the region can offer Amazon a place people want to move to.
"The young people that might be in some other city, and looking for where to not just get a job but to build a family, build a life ... they are going to be more attracted to Colorado," said Hickenlooper, a Democrat.
A national competition
Given the economic stakes, many of the nation's biggest cities are competing aggressively.
"When you're making the effort to submit a bid for something that can have such a nice economic boost to your region, you have to believe you're a contender, otherwise why would you invest the time," said Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She expects many cities to offer strong bids.
Among the likeliest contenders are Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Raleigh, N.C., and some cities are making pitches not that different from Denver's.
"Companies have kind of discovered Pittsburgh is a great place to do business, and that's why Google is here, and Intel is here and the Uber driverless car is here," said Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.
Lately, Fitzgerald has been working up to 60 hours a week on the city's bid for Amazon and has honed his pitch. "In fact, not only are young people staying, but there's more young people coming to Pittsburgh," he said.
Pittsburgh, he adds, has another advantage: The colors of the city's football, baseball and hockey teams are black and gold, just like Amazon's logo. (Amazon is one of NPR's financial supporters.)
The price of growth
Back in Denver, some Coloradans are wary of the additional, Amazon-fueled growth along with the traffic and rising real estate prices that it could bring.
"There's not really the infrastructure to support 50,000 more jobs," said 28-year-old chef Andrea Shinn, who grew up in nearby Boulder. The median home price there reached $885,000 last year as startups and high-tech companies have flocked to the once-bohemian college town.
"It seems like more people are coming every day, which is wonderful for the economy I suppose," said Shinn, "but I think we've been a little sideswiped and people are coming a little faster than we can anticipate."
But Shinn said she understands how the climate and lifestyle draw people to Colorado. She hopes if Amazon does choose Denver, the city won't lose what makes it special to her.