Metro Atlanta, state officials to present united front to nab Amazon

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Steve Cannon, left, then the CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, and Gov. Nathan Deal are all smiles in 2015 as they look over a Mercedes at the State Capitol following a press conference where they announced that the company’s headquarters would be relocating from New Jersey to Sandy Springs. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

Georgia’s full-fledged competition for Amazon’s second headquarters has entered a new and unpredictable phase now that it’s on the tech giant’s short list. But the state’s hunt for another major headquarters three years ago could provide valuable clues into its strategy for winning the project.

Georgia’s long courtship of Mercedes-Benz for its USA’s headquarters may give insights into what might happen in the coming months: lots of secret meetings, unrelenting involvement by high-level government officials and cutthroat competition.

The bid for Amazon is an exponentially larger — and far more complicated — project. It’s also happening on a compressed timeline, with a decision to be made some time this year.

But at the center of the state’s successful bid for the Mercedes project was a unified cooperation between state economic development officials and leaders from city and suburban areas who often cannibalize each other for lucrative jobs deals.

And experts and analysts contend that officials must engage that same spirit of unity to have a serious shot at landing Amazon and the region-changing 50,000 high-paying jobs it promises.

That’s not as easy as it sounds.

The Atlanta region historically hasn’t always played well together. Parts of the region for decades were outright hostile to mass transit, and except for Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties, the region failed to coalesce behind a regional transit system. Though there are signs regional cooperation and state involvement might soon break through.

For example, leaders from Gwinnett and Cobb counties, two governments that have historically sought to build more roads than to consider other transit options, are now engaged in serious studies to expand transit opportunities.

‘Everybody rowing’

Over the last few years, Atlanta poached NCR from Gwinnett County, the Falcons flirted with leaving for the suburbs before staying downtown and the Braves actually bolted from the city, whisking north across the Chattahoochee for a new taxpayer-funded ballpark in Cobb County.

It’s one reason that state economic development recruiters — and not an Atlanta-centric team — are leading the effort to entice Amazon. And at every step of the way, officials from all levels of government have stressed the same principle: What’s good for Atlanta is good for the suburbs, and visa versa.

“Everybody rowing in the same direction,” said Metro Atlanta Chamber President and CEO Hala Moddelmog, “just creates so much more power.”

When Mercedes executives visited Atlanta in late 2014, state and local leaders stressed a unified vision of greater Atlanta, Moddelmog said. They also weren’t shy about how they were addressing regional challenges, such as transportation.

“It’s not about exactly where they end up that matters,” Moddelmog said. “It’s about getting them here.”

Gov. Nathan Deal, too, has gone to great lengths to present a united front. Trumpeting Amazon’s decision to put Atlanta on its short list of 20 finalists, Deal praised the “cooperative effort by the entire region.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed went a step further, comparing the region-wide blitz for Amazon to the full-court press nearly three decades ago to land the 1996 Olympic Games.

“We left nothing on the table,” Reed recently said of the bid for the Amazon project, which could land in the heart of downtown.

A ‘turning point’

The successful pursuit of Mercedes-Benz is something of a template for that cooperation.

The company accelerated its search for a new U.S. headquarters in 2014 and quickly circled Atlanta, Dallas and Raleigh — though some Georgia recruiters privately worried the hunt was a naked effort to extract more incentives to stay in its old home base of New Jersey.

Steve Cannon, then Mercedes-Benz USA’s CEO, said the automaker had a scoring matrix for workforce, quality of life and numerous other factors. But in the end, the decision came down to site visits.

“We said, ‘This is what we want to get to get done, you have two days of our time, come up with an itinerary,’ ” Cannon said his team told the rival cities.

Mercedes officials were bused to tour sites for headquarters and conducted secret meetings around metro Atlanta with politicians, local CEOs and school superintendents.

City and state officials peppered executives with details about the region’s talent pool, specifics about potential tax incentives, even tours of some local homes for a ground-level view of the real estate market.

“I wanted to know if my marketing manager has a family of three, where’s he going to live?” Cannon said. “How much is he going to spend? What’s his commute like?”

It mattered little whether the officials were from Sandy Springs or from Smyrna: the region aimed to speak with one voice.

In one of those meetings, Georgia officials rounded up a small group of Mercedes executives in a private dining room for what Chris Riley, Deal’s top aide, later described as a “turning point” in the negotiation: A formal gathering that included the CEOs of Delta, UPS, Georgia Power and other corporate players based in Atlanta and its suburbs.

“They were used to being the big fish in a little pond in that part of New Jersey,” Riley said shortly after the deal was announced. “It was meant to reassure them that Mercedes would still be a big deal in a big town.”

Not long after, Cannon and his team chewed over the decision at dining hot spot Rathbun’s and put Atlanta at the top of the list. A few weeks later, Cannon called Deal to give the official word that Georgia had a new corporate headquarters.

When the company announced its decision, it hadn’t yet confirmed the spot — just hinted it was likely to move to the northern suburbs. It ultimately picked a temporary spot in Dunwoody and zeroed in on a sprawling site in Sandy Springs, just west of Ga. 400 and a MARTA station, for a sparkling new campus that can house 1,000 workers when it opens this year.

Mercedes’ decision came at a time when metro Atlanta needed a big win, after being battered by the recession and the housing bust. Ultimately, Cannon said his senior team was unanimous in their pick of Atlanta.

“Their pitch was as polished, together and compelling as any we’d seen,” said Cannon, now the CEO of billionaire Arthur Blank’s family of businesses AMB Group.

‘Geared to go’

Amazon sent the business recruiting world into a tizzy with their announcement in September of “HQ2,” a second headquarters to rival their first in Seattle.

Unlike the Mercedes pitch, which was largely conducted in secret, Amazon has trumpeted to the world what it wants with the $5 billion development. The result is likely to be an incentives arms race unlike any in Georgia’s history.

Amazon’s demands have a regional tinge to them, including on-site access to mass transit, close proximity to an international airport, a diverse population, a muscular higher education system and local officials who are “eager and willing” to partner with the company.

The tight deadlines have also led the state to lean on outside groups for help, including local recruiting agencies, business booster groups and corporate heavyweights like Georgia Power and Delta Air Lines. The state has formed a team of real estate experts to evaluate the dozens of potential sites that Amazon could pick.

“This is truly a collaborative effort,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was sworn in earlier this month. “And I believe our success is a direct result of our teamwork and our willingness to focus on results.”

Moddelmog said Atlanta’s place on Amazon’s shortlist is just the first step. The work, she added, is just starting.

“We’re all just geared to go.”

Staff writer Stephen Deere contributed to this report.

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