Why Amazon HQ2 Caused Us to Have an Identity Crisis

Written by Chris Richards on December 13, 2018

Cohere had a unique vantage point during the Amazon HQ2 selection process.

While this subject has caused some fatigue in the press about Amazon’s RFP, we are relieved that we can finally talk about it openly! Basically, we felt compelled to stay pretty quiet about the matter. Here’s why:

  1. We were part of and had unique access to the behind-the-scenes compilation of multiple cities’ responses to the RFP.
  2. Our leadership was championing different cities from within Cohere. Our CEO is highly dedicated to Team Philadelphia. Our Creative Director graduated from Virginia Tech and is a dedicated Hokie. Our Director of Biz Dev in Baltimore serves as the project lead for Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and grew up in the region.

After a drawn-out and intensive selection process, Amazon unveiled its selection of a second headquarters in late November. Split into two regions, Northern Virginia (NOVA) and Long Island City in Queens, NY, the HQ2 decision surprised real estate professionals across the US. Having been involved with clients and partners in many of the top-contending cities, Cohere had a unique perspective on a few cities’ pitches.

We thought it would be fun to interview the champions of both winning and losing regions in our offices. This Q&A with our Creative Director, Director of Biz Dev and CEO helps sum up the identity crisis we were having.

Q: Was the announcement of Northern Virginia as Amazon’s top pick surprising to you?

C (Chris):I assumed that it would be the selection from early on. Having grown up in Alexandria, VA just outside of DC, I’ve intrinsically learned and understood the value that NOVA offers. Growing up there, I personally benefitted from the expansive parks and green spaces, Metro infrastructure, international and highly-educated community, and global access. To me, NOVA was the “easy decision” from the start due to the quality of life and assets it offers those who chose to live in the area.

Antoinette, were you surprised by the Long Island City decision?
A (Antoinette): Everyone knows that I was rooting on the prospect of Philly pretty hard. Now that I am splitting my time between Brooklyn and Fishtown, however, I get this unique perspective as to the benefits of NYC. One of the reasons I think that dominated Amazon’s choice is the announcement of the investment in the LIRR with the East Side Access project. So this transit investment suddenly boosted Long Island’s attraction by signaling the expansion of economic opportunities for the city and suburbs alike. By the time the HQ2 is built (2022), Amazon employees can easily get to Manhattan in 7 mins or less by multiple access points. This allows for the cost of living to go down for those that will need to send their kids to school and live in the burbs. While giving younger employees access to the center of the universe of fashion, food, design and all things NYC. After the East Side LIRR project was announced in May, I was not surprised one bit that they made this part of their decision.

Q: What attraction do you think VT was to Amazon’s Northern Virginia choice?

D (Dylan): A billion dollar investment by VT is huge. I’m not surprised by it, though. During my time at Tech, I saw an incredible amount of collaboration between students. The school has a track record of molding future leaders and innovators, not just in tech and design, but across the board. They promote students to work with cross disciples like industrial design to solve complex problems and develop new and lasting solutions. That’s a huge asset considering the diverse range of jobs Amazon will bring. Hiring a Hokie means getting a dedicated and forward-thinking team player. I believe these are exactly the type of people Amazon hopes to retain.
C: Right, that was such a cool addition to their final bid! Access to a talent pipeline was a huge priority for the Virginia team, knowing that Amazon needs a talented workforce to fill its high-end jobs. I’m excited to see how that connection ties together Northern Virginia with the more southern campus of VT. In a sense, it kind of brings the whole state a little closer together.

Q: What surprised you about the proposal from Northern Virginia?

C: The unity behind it! The fact that Northern Virginia, made up of separate counties and cities submitted a proposal as a single unit shows a highly unified approach to winning the business that many cities should take note of going forward. Arlington and Alexandria both knew it was win-win for either one to be selected. They share such a common workforce, infrastructure, and housing stock, that it just made sense – again, looking back as someone who grew up between Arlington and Alexandria, the line truly blurs when you’re talking about picking one place over another in such close proximity. I’m proud they came together as they did.
A: I was also surprised at how united the regions were in their collaborative pitch, while still maintaining their independence. We had an on-the-ground perspective with our client the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, and I witnessed a discussion with Arlington and DC economic development leaders where their collaboration was incredible. Each region submitted their own application, allowing them to be fully independent. However, they also made it clear to Amazon the reasons why they were the right choice on their own – which demonstrated the ability to collaborate like a strong team would – honest, critical input. Unafraid of feedback. Perfectly right for Amazon’s own partnership needs.

Q: What was the most impressive pitch you saw?

A: Detroit killed it with their video submission “Move Here. Move the World”. They truly identified the American spirit in ingenuity in their pitch. They termed a word I loved – “Solutionairies”. It was brilliant.
D: Detroit for sure. I’m forever about the underdog story. Whether it’s a person, city, or place, the underdog is on the relentless pursuit of greatness. Detroit communicates an emotional story revealing their dedication to the cities potential. This hit me in my gut!
C: Baltimore had a very strong pitch leveraging the upcoming Port Covington development, that provided ample space and opportunity for Amazon to develop a campus from scratch – it was impressive to see the city rally around a single location as a point of focus. And because it’s already planned to be the future of Under Armour’s corporate campus, the attractive possibilities have all been explored and visualized. But in the end, I think the property and space were too fresh, with not enough existing infrastructure or population-base to fulfill Amazon’s development-ready wishes.