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Officials: Amazon felt Baltimore lacked tech talent for ‘HQ2’ project

View of the Port Covington development in Baltimore from Key Highway. (Courtesy of Sagamore Development Co.)

View of the Port Covington development in Baltimore from Key Highway. (Courtesy of Sagamore Development Co.)

Officials affiliated with Baltimore’s bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters said Wednesday they believe the e-commerce giant’s conclusion that the city lacked sufficient tech talent — and not a lack of financial incentives or fears about crime — was what doomed their proposal.

Officials with the Port Covington developer and the city’s economic development team also disclosed that they didn’t include any new city incentives in their proposal, relying heavily on the shovel-ready nature of the Port Covington in their attempt to lure “HQ2.”

The city’s proposal, a pitch that included video, augmented reality and large amounts of data, was released Wednesday, and it painted a picture of Port Covington as a tech-savvy development that provides a unique opportunity for a build-to-suit headquarters on state-of-the-art infrastructure.

“With its size, flexible master plan, tech-forward design, and commitment to sustainable, environmentally-friendly growth, Amazon will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a space from the ground up that reflects its culture and values, employee needs, and vision for the future of retail and e-commerce,” according to the Port Covington presentation sent to Amazon.

The pitch highlighted the already-approved $660 million in tax increment financing agreed to by the city of Baltimore for the Port Covington redevelopment project in 2016 and the potential for brownfield property tax credits as incentives. The proposal also mentions the existing $160 million in public financing approved years ago for a now defunct proposal on the 43-acre Westport site, now owned by Sagamore Development Co. That financing, however, is cannot simply be transferred and used on another project.

“Personally I think $660 million in TIF bonds is a huge commitment, and we didn’t see any reason to add to that given that it is one of the largest in the country that has ever been approved. There was just no logical reason for the city to do anything more,” Baltimore Development Corp. President and CEO William H. Cole IV said.

Maryland is offering Amazon $5 billion in cash incentives, tax credits and transportation funding if it builds the HQ2 in the state. Details of the state’s incentive package were redacted from Baltimore’s presentation and were discussed in broad strokes after the city was no longer under consideration for HQ2. Amazon has said it is considering Montgomery County among its list of finalists.

Tom Geddes, CEO of Plank Industries, Port Covington builder Sagamore Development Co.’s parent company, said conversations with senior executives at Amazon made clear the company’s top priority in selecting a site is a critical mass of available tech talent. During these conversations, Geddes said, he asked about national image, transit and other potential reasons the Baltimore fell short. But every time Amazon officials would steer the conversation back to talent.

“It felt to me like (available tech talent) was No.1, 2 and 3 on their list,” Geddes said.

In their bid, local officials provided a ream of data they believed made the case that Baltimore was amply endowed with tech talent. For instance, the Port Covington proposal cited studies and reports that said Baltimore — combined with Washington — is well above the national average for information security analysts, software developers and web developers. The pitch also made note of the presence of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland as major research institutions.

Amazon has been reluctant to divulge exact reasons for not picking specific sites. During a January conference call between economic development officials and Amazon, the company’s executives praised Baltimore’s proposal but did not provide specific feedback on reasons for eliminating the city from consideration.

Baltimore joined hundreds of other jurisdictions in North America in bidding to land Amazon’s proposed HQ2. The project represented the potential to bring more than $5 billion in investment and 50,000 jobs to a declining former industrial city.

Charm City’s bid centered on the proposed redevelopment of Port Covington. Sagamore Development Co., in a joint venture with Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, plans to transform the 235 acres of largely industrial land on a south Baltimore peninsula into a massive mixed-use development.

Development plans call for 13,500 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of office space and 200 hotel rooms over the next 20 years. The development recently secured a substantial private investment when Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group committed $233 million to the project. Athletic apparel maker Under Armour — its CEO, Kevin Plank, financially backs Sagamore Development Co.— also plans to build a 3.9-million-square-foot headquarters at the site.

In November, the city officially mailed off its bid to Amazon during an event at the City Garage building in Port Covington that served as a pep rally for Baltimore’s bid.

“We followed our (request-for-proposal process), and we didn’t want to do any quirky things. What we did is put together the best proposal of all, from any city. Other folks may have to offer gifts because we’re already shovel-ready,” Mayor Catherine Pugh, said at the time.

Despite the city’s efforts, when Amazon announced the final 20 cities in January, Baltimore wasn’t on the list. Montgomery County, a suburban county outside of Washington, was the only jurisdiction in Maryland to make the cut.

If there’s a silver lining for the city, Cole said, it’s that at least the city now has this material that it can use to attract other companies interested in relocating to Baltimore.

“We certainly have other development sites. We get companies that call and having a work product like this that we can re-purpose and personalize for their use will be beneficial,” Cole said.

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