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Cities Recycle Their Amazon Pitches to Attract New Business

May 14,2018 14:21

While most of the proposals were kept private, they ranged in format from glossy books with pictures, charts and maps to presentations with video interviews of local business leaders, entrepreneurs and students. Last fall, the founder and chief ...

Some U.S. cities are learning something this year from Amazon: how to sell themselves.
“We already have seen businesses that have expressed interest in Philadelphia and have told us they were driven specifically by what they saw in our pitch to Amazon,” says Sylvie Gallier Howard, Philadelphia’s first deputy commerce director.

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Amazon’s request for proposals solicited a host of information, from the size of the city’s tech talent pool to its airport and connections to Seattle. While tailored in part to Amazon’s needs, the proposals highlighted aspects including quality of life, housing availability and cost, transportation options and other qualities that could prove attractive to a range of employers. While most of the proposals were kept private, they ranged in format from glossy books with pictures, charts and maps to presentations with video interviews of local business leaders, entrepreneurs and students.
Last fall, the founder and chief executive at Elm Partners were drafting a headquarters list of their own, as they planned to move the small algorithmic investment firm from London to the U.S. The founder’s children would soon all be in the U.S. with his youngest hoping to attend college in Philadelphia, said Chief Executive James White. Philadelphia was high on their list, but they didn’t know the city well and were considering more familiar terrain in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston.
Then, a friend sent a link to the video Philadelphia put together as part of its Amazon pitch.
“The video just resonated with us really well,” Mr. White said. The piece highlighted Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial community and its burgeoning food scene. It helped push the city to the top of their list, and the company began its move to Philadelphia in January.
He had never lived in Philadelphia before, Mr. White said, “but this made us feel OK about taking that risk.”
Toronto Global, the regional organization that coordinated and released the area’s Amazon bid online, has counted more than 15,000 downloads of its bid as of last month. The group refers companies to the online bid, said spokeswoman Julia Sakas. When Toronto Global has reached out to some prospective companies, it has learned firms already have seen the online book and pulled information from it.
The Ontario Investment Office took copies of the proposal to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, a mobile industry conference and exhibition. Toronto Global’s team takes data from the book and customizes it for other prospective companies, Ms. Sakas said.
There is a risk, of course, that cities and states overspend in offering incentives to woo companies. While companies promise jobs and investments, those don’t always materialize as expected.
Places including Philadelphia, Toronto, Indianapolis and Newark, N.J., have received an uptick of inquiries from companies, some citing the digital brochures created for the Amazon bid, officials in the cities said.
Newark has received attention both for unexpectedly making the shortlist and for its eye-popping $7 billion package of state and city incentives. Almost 50 companies and other groups in Newark volunteered staff and expertise to help with the city’s proposal. Calls from companies looking for commercial space as well as requests for information about real-estate development have increased significantly since Newark made the shortlist in January, city officials said. Invitations for city officials to speak on economic development, business, real estate, tech and urban-planning panels have doubled.
Inquiries from companies, real-estate developers and industry organizations looking for a conference and trade-show destination also spiked, said Aisha Glover, chief executive officer of Newark Community Economic Development Corporation.
“We’ve had to prove ourselves for quite some time,” Ms. Glover said. “The reason why this is our turning point is because being shortlisted has cosigned the city and everything we have been saying.”
In Philadelphia, city development officials said they are working on a new version of the website that will widen its target from Amazon to a broader array of businesses and organizations—a process they call “deAmazonification.”
—Shibani Mahtani contributed to this article.
Write to Keiko Morris at Keiko.Morris@wsj.com and Laura Stevens at laura.stevens@wsj.com

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