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At this point, it’s anyone’s guess where Amazon will build its second headquarters. The tech company has been silent for the year about the project nicknamed HQ2, telling Money only that it remains committed to making a decision before the end of the year.
The clock is ticking, and in the absence of updates, everyone is trying to read the tea leaves. Flight records, employee visits, home prices and even Jeff Bezos’ restaurant preferences have all been scrutinized for clues about where HQ2 will land. It’s a huge project with a potentially gigantic economic impact, after all: Construction is expected to cost $5 billion, and the office is set to generate 50,000 jobs.
Money contacted five experts who have a combined 144 years of experience in site selection and economic development to see what they think is happening behind the scenes in the HQ2 selection process right now — and, more importantly, where they believe it’s going to end up.
Here’s what they said about HQ2.
‘An Enormous Undertaking’
Nearly 240 communities submitted bids for HQ2 last year, and Amazon narrowed the list down to 20 finalists in January. Dennis J. Donovan, principal at Wadley Donovan Gutshaw Consulting, says he doesn’t have a favorite, but he initially thought HQ2 would fit right in Brooklyn.
In his opinion, several other metropolitan areas make sense for Amazon, among them Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Donovan also has his eye on Toronto, just because putting HQ2 in Canada would be such a wild card. “I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to come up with something out of the box,” he adds.
But Donovan believes the company might actually miss its self-imposed deadline.
“If you really go through the process of vetting each location down to the point where you make a final decision, that is an enormous undertaking,” he says. “I’m not sure the year’s end is realistic.”
‘One Hell of a Christmas Gift’
James Beatty, president of NCS International, says he thinks Amazon has two or three finalists it’s pitting against each other internally.
“They’re probably looking at all the various incentive packages and running financial models on what the impact might be,” he says. “Someone’s got to convince Jeff Bezos that this is the place and why.”
In its request for proposals, Amazon laid out a handful of characteristics it said it wanted for HQ2. It preferred an area with more than 1 million people, an urban or suburban location that could attract tech talent and a business-friendly environment. Amazon also asked for proximity to an international airport, access to mass transit and a spot near major highways.
In Beatty’s eyes, Northern Virginia has all of those qualities. He thinks an announcement is coming soon.
“It couldn’t go much longer than the end of November, but it would make one hell of a Christmas gift to whoever gets it,” he says.
‘Developers Playing Fantasy Amazon’
Didi Caldwell, chairwoman of the Site Selectors Guild, says Amazon is a magnet. Wherever it goes, a new tech hub will follow, so onlookers are getting prepared.
“Some people play fantasy football. There are developers out there playing fantasy Amazon: ‘Maybe I should go ahead and invest in property close to where I believe these Amazon sites may be,'” she says.
Amazon itself may invest in property close to the government. Executives are probably looking at what might happen in a variety of scenarios and how close they are to political power players. For example, if Amazon splits up into several different companies or tax policies drastically change, it would behoove the company to have lawmakers at their disposal. Caldwell points to Foxconn, an electronics company that decided to put a $10 billion TV plant in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin congressional district, as evidence that Amazon might be leaning toward the D.C. region.
D.C. is also in the Eastern time zone, which means it’ll be three hours ahead of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. And Bezos appears to be on board.
“He’s going to have the final say,” Caldwell adds. “It’s interesting he’s spending so much time in Washington.”
‘This Thing’s Going to D.C.’
Kathy Mussio, managing partner at Atlas Insight LLC, isn’t a fan of the way the HQ2 process has played out so far.
In addition to the fact that some communities wasted resources assembling their proposals, Mussio says it also raised expectations for smaller companies looking to relocate. They’ve read about how Amazon attracted billion-dollar incentive packages and want the same for themselves, which can pose a challenge for consultants.
After HQ2 was announced, her office did a pool where everyone threw in a dollar and a guess. Hers was Toronto, but she changed her mind when Amazon included three D.C.-area locations on its shortlist.
Plus, Bezos recently bought a house in the capital and owns the Washington Post.
“It feels like every single thing is pointing there,” she says. “I saw the list of 20, and with everything being in the Mid-Atlantic, I was like, ‘This thing’s going to D.C.'”
‘The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room’
Jerry Szatan, founder of Szatan and Associates, also says he’s warming to the idea of HQ2 in the D.C. region. In his opinion, the final decision is all about trade-offs.
He says “every place that Amazon’s looking at has some flaws,” but the company has to decide which factors are most important. Is Chicago’s crime rate a deal breaker? Is New York City too expensive? Is it worth leaving the country — and risking a Donald Trump tweet storm — to select Toronto?
Whatever Amazon does, Szatan says it’s going to set a precedent. But the project’s size and scope means people won’t see anything similar for quite a while.
“Amazon’s like the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he says. “Who else is the 800-pound gorilla that would have this sort of influence?”