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Thirst Tracker: Eight Questions About Amazon’s HQ2 Finalists

The retail giant is searching for its next massive home-base city. In its 20 finalists, Jeff Bezos’s company snubs the heartland, cozies up to D.C., and gives Atlanta another chance to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

A hand placing an Amazon flag on a map of the U.S. Ringer illustration

Congratulations (or perhaps ominous warnings) are in order for the cities who have made it to the second round of Amazon’s municipal death match to determine where it will build its second headquarters. On Thursday, the online retail giant announced that it has culled its list of 238 potential locations down to 20, a still-massive pool of applicants that will likely have to subjugate themselves to further gimmicks, flattery, and financially questionable incentive packages in order to cater to the whims of Jeff Bezos. Those cities are:

Austin, Texas
Columbus, Ohio
Los Angeles
Montgomery County, Maryland
Newark, New Jersey
New York
Northern Virginia
Raleigh, North Carolina
Washington, D.C.

I have a lot of questions about this list, which I will attempt to grapple with right now.

Why is this list so long?

Amazon was expected to announce a short list of HQ2 finalists early in 2018, but I thought the list would be … short. Twenty cities is a huge number that doesn’t do much to clarify Amazon’s preferences. The list includes nine of the country’s 10 biggest metropolitan areas, as well as several oft-mentioned HQ2 favorites such as Denver and Austin. Left off are the dozens of smaller communities that lacked some of the basic requirements of Amazon’s HQ2 request for proposals (such as a metro-area population of at least 1 million) but decided to apply anyway in quixotic quests for jobs and media attention. The only thing the list clarifies is something Instagram users have known for a long time: Desperate acts of thirst, like shipping a cactus to Amazon’s headquarters or renaming your town “Amazon” or writing 1,000 Amazon product reviews, are rarely rewarded.

Is Amazon really considering all of these cities?

Amazon says it will work with each of the 20 cities to request more information and “evaluate the feasibility of a future partnership.” My guess is Amazon has just a handful of true contenders left, and is using this drawn-out process to drive positive media coverage and play the competing cities against one another. Tech companies regularly dangle potential jobs in front of multiple cities to goad officials into offering ever-more-lucrative incentive packages. Amazon has just managed to turn this common practice into a months-long international game show where the promised rewards (50,000 jobs, billions of dollars of investment) are simply too good to ignore.

Can Amazon’s megalomaniacal game show be stopped?

Sure, if cities are willing to work together and use their collective power to reframe the rules of the HQ2 competition. Richard Florida, cofounder of The Atlantic’s CityLab, believes the 20 finalists could band together and stop the tax-incentive chaos.

But such a plan has long odds with Amazon’s request for proposals specifically highlighting tax incentives as a significant decision factor. Amazon won’t necessarily go to the city with the biggest incentive package, but it will try to get the biggest incentive package it can out of the city where it wants to go.

Does Amazon hate the heartland?

In terms of geographic diversity, the HQ2 finalists are clustered heavily on the East Coast. The Rust Belt also made a solid showing with several cities (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and, if you want to count it, Chicago), as did the South (Atlanta, Raleigh, Nashville). Even the West Coast got some love with a Los Angeles nod. Largely eliminated from the competition, though, was the central part of the United States, where corn and Trump’s America feature stories sprout from the fertile plains. Both Kansas City and St. Louis were left out. So were Milwaukee and Minneapolis farther north. Perhaps these cities were always long shots for a company looking for robust public transit and a deep pool of tech talent at research universities, but the gaping hole in the middle of the country on Amazon’s finalists map is still jarring.

What was the biggest snub?

That would have to be Detroit, which was a sentimental favorite if not a pragmatic one. American media loves a good revitalization narrative, and Detroit, as a potent symbol of the collapse of the auto industry and the global recession, seems overdue for one. The city’s leaders apparently thought so, too, dedicating at least 100 staffers to the HQ2 proposal and offering a sweet tax-incentive deal that would have sent Amazon employees’ state income taxes directly to the company. Even Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was involved in the effort. The fact Detroit didn’t make the cut indicates that Amazon may be less interested in boosting a struggling city’s economy and more invested in tapping into a thriving city’s bountiful resources.

Does Amazon want to be in a nexus of power?

Over two decades Amazon has effectively transformed Seattle in its own image, snapping up 15 percent of office space, driving up cost of living, and spurring a population boom that’s causing myriad infrastructure challenges. Amazon was able to have such a big impact because Seattle was a relatively small city 20 years ago, with a population of 560,000 in 2000. But a lot of the cities on the HQ2 list are in or near places that already wield significant influence. Boston and Toronto are key academic research hubs. New York and Los Angeles control media and entertainment. Most tellingly, though, Amazon has picked three finalists near the seat of political power — northern Virginia; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Washington, D.C., itself. In 2016, Bezos bought a $23 million D.C. mansion, and he’s planning to use it to host “salon-style dinners” for power players across the political spectrum. Maybe Amazon doesn’t want to convert a faded industrial power into a company town. It might think it can convert the nation’s capital into one.

Is Atlanta about to take yet another L?

Look, Atlanta has had a very rough go of it in major competitions with other cities over the past year or so. And though one of the South’s largest cities is considered a front-runner, I can’t help but imagine that Bezos has already picked Boston and is orchestrating an elaborate troll against the A.

When will this interminable contest be over?

Amazon says it will make a final decision later this year. We’ve probably got months of outlandish overtures from mayors and escalating tax breaks from legislatures ahead. Amazon has engineered the perfect drought conditions for this competition. The thirst will be unbearable.