Cheap labor, light rail and a stadium (but only if Bezos wants it!): How Richmond and Hampton Roads tried to woo Amazon

By: and - December 5, 2018 2:20 pm

An RVA-Amazon logo included in the Richmond region’s pitch to the online retail giant.

Northern Virginia may have won half of Amazon’s HQ2, but Hampton Roads and the Richmond region made their own pitches to the corporate giant, touting cheap labor and housing prices and site plans that included corporate rallies at a new baseball stadium and massive transportation improvements like light rail lines.

The state provided redacted versions of the pitches to the Mercury this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Each region’s approach has its own distinct flavor. Richmond, in particular, stressed the low cost of labor, with local officials noting “low unionization activity.”

(That sentiment dovetailed nicely with a letter then Gov. Terry McAuliffe wrote declaring, “In Virginia, we put corporate partners first.”)

Hampton Roads touted its oceanfront and proximity to transatlantic data cables.

All promised or alluded to the potential for major infrastructure upgrades, particularly transit — a weak spot for both regions.

A Richmond-region site proposed by Chesterfield County proposed a light-rail line into downtown Richmond. The region also noted the potential for five bus-rapid-transit lines and extensive infrastructure upgrades for electric vehicles. Henrico County floated a riverfront site with water-taxi service via the James to downtown.

Hampton Roads downplayed its traffic congestion, but Virginia Beach dangled a light-rail extension that was rejected by voters and Suffolk offered a whole new bus system it would call the “Amazon Express.”

Many of the specific incentives, including some proposed site plans, have been redacted in the public copies. And the provided documents don’t include public cost estimates for any of the proposed amenities and incentives. Officials with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership said they consulted with local agencies to decide what to withhold.

[Download the Richmond and Hampton Roads redacted Amazon HQ2 proposals.]

They justified the redactions by citing exemptions in the state Freedom of Information Act that allow economic development agencies to withhold documents like marketing plans and proprietary information provided by private developers.

“The potential integrated incentive plans represent information regarding marketing resources and activities that might reveal to our competitors the commonwealth’s strategies and plans for approaching large-scale economic development opportunities,” wrote VEDP General Counsel Sandra Jones McNinch.

“If VEDP were to receive a reputation as an organization that does not protect such proprietary information, businesses that may have sought to do business in the commonwealth may choose to bypass the commonwealth and to do business with a more discreet state or country.”

That being said, here’s what we know (and what we can glean about what officials don’t want us to know) about the bids from Hampton Roads and Richmond.

Richmond region

Officials in Richmond offered Amazon three potential sites, but the overall message from the Greater Richmond Partnership, the regional group that prepared the bid, was that the area is a cheap place to do business, promising low housing prices paired with “talent at a fraction of the cost” and median wages “significantly lower than competing HQ2 (areas).”

A page from the Richmond region’s pitch to Amazon touts cheap labor and housing.

They also said the area is urban and dynamic but has “maintained its centuries-old legacy of southern hospitality.”

The region’s transportation infrastructure could already accommodate 50,000 new Amazon employees, the proposal claimed.

And while they said the region already has an “extensive public transit system” —a perhaps questionable claim in light of studies that found the opposite — they said leaders are committed to big upgrades, including five bus-rapid transit lines. There is currently only one and no current plans to expand on that.

They also floated throwing autonomous vehicles into the mix.

Richmond offers a site with a baseball stadium

The city of Richmond  proposed a 60-acre tract of land it owns on Boulevard, which currently houses a minor league baseball stadium but has otherwise been largely cleared for redevelopment — a plan that’s been put on hold while city leaders wait for a hoped-for-relocation of a state liquor warehouse across the street.

They sold the stadium, which locally has been more of a white elephant than asset, as a potential piece of the plan, noting a new stadium would also function as an entertainment venue and could host Amazon’s employee town halls. If Amazon’s not into it, they said it could be moved, saying it’s “not an impediment.”

Many of the specifics, however, have been redacted. That includes overall site plans as well as large blocks of text, some of which immediately follow references to the state-owned land and the stadium, making it unclear the extent to which the property figures into the proposal.

While the location is adjacent to interstates 95 and 64, transit access is a weak spot for the site. They said they’d build a pedestrian bridge over rail lines to connect the site to Broad Street. They also noted a Greyhound bus station across the street and a train station downtown that might one day serve high-speed rail.

Otherwise, the pitch focused on the urban nature of the site, with “hopping hipster hangouts,” a brewery district with lots of loft apartments, a large residential district to the north filled with inexpensive homes and close proximity to downtown.

Chesterfield offers light rail connection

Chesterfield County pitched Amazon on undeveloped land five miles outside the city center at the intersection of Powhite and Chippenham parkways, which they said offered “a bespoke solution in an urban location.”

They dubbed the area “The Galleria.”

Again, transit, and the absence thereof, figures prominently in the proposal offered by the county, which currently pays for just a single express-bus with one stop in the county.

A proposal to build a light-rail line to the city center underpinned the plans.

A redacted page that details site plans in Chesterfield County, including information about a proposed light rail line.

“The county’s vision for launching HQ2 is through the creation of a dynamic, vertically integrated, mixed-use headquarters on the parcels bordered by the rail line,” the county wrote.

But further details about the site plan and how and where the light rail line would go are redacted. They did note the possibility of BRT expansions and more express buses to serve “reverse commuters from the urban neighborhoods.”

Chesterfield also leaned on its role as the host of an existing Amazon facility, a fulfillment warehouse on the eastern end of the county.

“Amazon and Chesterfield are already partners and Amazon has experienced Chesterfield’s ability to get things done that others can’t and do them faster than the rest of the nation,” they wrote.

Henrico pitches riverfront, water taxis

Henrico County’s pitch, perhaps the most muted of the three Richmond-area offers, focused on an undeveloped piece of farm land south of Richmond along the James River called Tree Hill.

History figured prominently.

“It is believed this is the site of the meeting between Paramount Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, and John Smith. As you will note in the potential site layout renderings, these areas can be preserved to commemorate their historical significance,” the county wrote.

They also noted the presence of a “1920s vintage dairy barn which could be a perfect venue for a farmer’s market.”

Henrico County is the only Richmond-area bidder that didn’t redact site plans or renderings

Henrico’s pitch focused the least on transit upgrades, though it references an extension of the existing bus rapid transit line and “discussion of a potential water taxi system to connect Tree Hill with the up-and-coming Manchester neighborhood across the James River.”

Unlike other localities in the region, the county made its proposed site plans public. The most heavily redacted page of the county’s pitch focuses on potential infrastructure improvements.

Otherwise, the county touted its efficiency and business-friendly reputation, high bond rating and low taxes.

“In Henrico County, we share Amazon’s principal of ‘customer obsession,’” the county wrote. “We call this the ‘Henrico Way’ and in every decision, we are focused on outcomes, not process.”

Hampton Roads

Millenials, ports and a growing international broadband network were some of the reasons Hampton Roads leaders thought Amazon would want to make the area its new home.

Not to mention the seafood, history and yes, a sandcastle made especially for the proposal to the company.

The region listed an array of accolades including: the fastest-growing population of millennials in the country, aided by the large concentration of young sailors, who regional leaders said would also be an asset to Amazon once they finish their service and look for jobs in the private sector.

The region, known locally for terrible traffic and clogged tunnel-bridges, isn’t so bad for drivers compared to cities like Los Angeles, leaders wrote.

They also touted potential air and sea connections. The Norfolk Airport Authority committed to bringing nonstop service to Seattle and San Francisco if Amazon picked the region.

The coast, they noted, offers abundant recreation and access to transatlantic data connections.

“The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is the right place at the right time for Amazon,” wrote leaders of all seven of the region’s cities — as well as Poquoson and Franklin and nearby counties.

Unlike the Richmond region’s proposal, the Hampton Roads pitch is only lightly redacted in areas that appear to deal with land transactions with a private development company.

Virginia Beach pitches its — you guessed it — beach

The Hampton Roads proposal dedicates the most ink to Virginia Beach, where regional leaders eyed Town Center, a planned downtown district that began taking shape a decade ago. It’s a public-private partnership between the city and development company Armada Hoffler.

Within Town Center proper, Virginia Beach flaunted 8.1 million square feet of new office space in 15 buildings on 45 acres and the surrounding 1,200-acre district open for development or redevelopment. The area includes several of Virginia Beach’s oldest neighborhoods.

“Armada Hoffler would prefer to serve as master developer for the HQ2 project and enter into a lease scenario with Amazon,” the proposal stated. “As an alternative, they would entertain selling the land.”

Amazon’s headquarters in Virginia Beach would straddle Virginia Beach Boulevard, a major road that runs through the middle of the city. Amazon would get an elevated pedestrian walkway over the road to connect their offices, a project that floundered in the past because of the cost.

Virginia Beach has spent $4.1 million to create the beginnings of a high-speed fiber-optic network that directly connects the city to Europe and South America. A Dutch company that wants to build a third cable network to the Netherlands is in the process of constructing a data center in the city, too.

Notably, Virginia Beach’s proposal said there are plans to extend light rail into the city, even though voters overwhelmingly rejected it in a 2016 referendum. Virginia Beach still owns an old Norfolk-Southern railroad right-of-way that was going to become the light rail route.

“The corridor is currently programmed for creation of a multi-purpose … shared-use path,” the proposal reads. “In addition, plans have already been developed for extension of The Tide light rail from its current eastern terminus; Phase One would extend the line to Town Center, adjacent to the proposed Amazon HQ2 location. Ultimately, the system would extend east to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.”

Suffolk offers 246 acres of free land

Suffolk had fewer technological connections to offer Amazon, but pitched Harbour View, a burgeoning development that leaders said would offer an opportunity for the business to shape hundreds of acres as the company sees fit.

“The Point at Harbour View is located amid the area’s most explosive growth and the local infrastructure is ready for more,” the proposal stated. Right now, the area is a center for medical facilities, as well as retail and residential development.

All of the land up to 246 acres required for Amazon’s headquarters would be provided free of charge at the Suffolk site, the proposal said. Land in the area is owned by the Economic Development Authority of Suffolk or the Tidewater Community College Real Estate Foundation.

As a growing area, transit would need to be improved, leaders wrote. But they offered a traffic improvement plan which included possible future improvements to the Interstate 664 interchange.

And Amazon could have a water taxi there too, which would have relieved commuters coming to work in Suffolk from the Peninsula.

Suffolk’s transit authority also proposed the Amazon Express, a dedicated bus service for Amazon employees from carpool locations. The military operates a similar service in other parts of Hampton Roads.

Hampton offers Amazon a fort

The site on Hampton Roads’ Peninsula is actually two: Fort Monroe, which is owned by the state and the 110-acre Woodlands Golf Course owned by the city of Hampton.

While the proposal alludes to Amazon buying land on Fort Monroe, Hampton wrote the Woodlands Golf Course would be transferred to Amazon at no cost.  

The sites are less than two miles apart and can be accessed by walking or biking, but Hampton promised to create dedicated bike lanes and bus rapid transit routes between the two. The city is currently studying bus rapid transit.

Fort Monroe has a fiber network designed for the U.S. Army, with $22 million in state money available to make other infrastructure improvements. The golf course, however, only has a few buildings the city would demolish to make room for Amazon.

Leaders offered Amazon buildings that are currently owned by the state’s Fort Monroe Authority on the old base.

The state took over the former U.S. Army base in 2011, and opened it up to business and renters. It’s also home to the nationally recognized Fort Monroe monument.

“The adaptive reuse of historic buildings at Fort Monroe for HQ2’s first phase will ensure Amazon’s shaping of the future is rooted in the preservation of history,” the proposal said. An offer for an additional 16 acres would “allow Amazon to preserve and rebrand (the) site.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.

Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.