PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In a sunny conference room on the 16th floor of a Center City office building, about 30 key city officials, business and non-profit leaders and outside consultants sit at tables covered with laptops and manila folders full of facts and ideas for what could be the most important pitch for Philadelphia since William Penn sold it to settlers as a haven for religious freedom.
With a week left to submit a bid to host Amazon’s HQ2, the team begins each weekly strategy session trying to get into the mind of its target audience.
“My fun Amazon fact is related very specifically to the task at hand of finalizing our written materials,” said Commerce Department Chief of Staff Sylvie Howard when it was her turn to contribute a fact about the company that could help land the deal.
“We have heard from numerous people within the company or who have spent time within the company that a key thing to do when writing for Amazon is to look up ‘weasel words’ and then make sure you never use any of those.”
The Amazon facts are a brief ice-breaker to the sessions and the sessions are just one component of what Mayor Kenney describes as an “all hands on deck” effort to lure a business that could change the city’s fortunes, creating five times as many jobs as American Airlines, currently the largest private, for-profit employer in the city.
“This is too big of a deal, it’s too many jobs and it’s too great of a company for us not to go after it and we would love to have it here,” says Kenney. “We think we’re positioned to put a great case forward.”
The competition, though, is fierce and Amazon’s requirements are exacting. The RFP requires that cities put a dollar figure on the tax incentives they’ll offer to land the $5 billion dollar deal. Some analysts say the company may be looking for as much as $10 billion. New Jersey has already announced a $5 billion incentive package for the company.
Philadelphia has the ten-year tax abatement and state tax incentives in the three Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ) it’s highlighting in its pitch– two in University City and one at the Navy Yard. But Senior Deputy Commerce Director Duane Bumb says it would need more help from the state to offer really sizable incentives.
“The state is very much focused on this issue right now because there are multiple locations across Pennsylvania that are interested in submitting a proposal,” says Bumb, “and Pennsylvania wants them all to be as successful as they can be.”
Though the deadline is looming, Bumb says the city has not yet calculated the worth of its tax credits and, once the proposal is final, it won’t be able to disclose the figure because it’s signed a confidentiality agreement with Amazon– another requirement of the RFP– despite the fact that what it’s offering is essentially the property of taxpayers.
Bumb believes the emphasis on incentives misses the mark, anyway.
“Any company wants a site where it can be most successful,” he says, “and I think the driver in that equation for Amazon is, where can they find 50,000 highly-skilled workers who can drive the industry forward for them. Access to that workforce is the biggest issue and that’s where we think we are especially strong, with a large, highly-skilled population here and immediate access to the even larger metropolitan areas immediately north and south of us.”
He also thinks quality of life will be a big factor and– another item highlighted in the RFP– “a business-friendly environment.”
That may be a higher hurdle for Philadelphia than an adequate incentive package.
The Chamber of Commerce has been highly critical of the city’s business climate, even suing, recently, over legislation that it says is overly intrusive.
When the bill, barring employers from asking a job applicant’s wage history, passed city council, the Chamber called it “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and put out a list of taxes and regulations that it says has prevented the city from attracting new businesses.
Nonetheless, the Chamber is helping with the bid proposal and wrote Bezos an endorsement extolling the “unique spirit of collaboration and innovation” in the business community.
And Bumb was in City Council on Tuesday, at a fast-tracked hearing on expanding the parcels in one of the KOZs the city is promoting to Amazon, not only to secure the incentives but to show council’s willingness to act quickly.
“We expect to be competing with many other cities across the country,” he told the council committee. “The additional incentives provided by the KOZ program can help to make the city’s proposal even more compelling.”
The committee unanimously passed the bill.
Bumb says the city hopes to have the final draft of its proposal finished by Friday because it wants to submit it Monday, the first day Amazon is accepting proposals.
The city’s team believes that will show an eagerness and efficiency that will impress Amazon, a theory they’ve gleaned from the weekly recitation of Amazon facts.
“We do this because Amazon’s number one value is customer obsession,” says Howard, “and we are all, clearly, customer-obsessed.”