How can Louisville compete with some of the country's major population centers in trying to attract Amazon's HQ2, one of the biggest economic development prizes ever to come down the pike?
Most experts believe the local region has little, if any, hope of grabbing a bite of the apple, but a few economic development observers say the chances are at least slim — and not none.
"Our thought is, why not Louisville?" said Deana Epperly Karem, vice president for regional economic growth for Greater Louisville Inc., the city's chamber of commerce. "Anything is possible. We think we have a great shot, and we are looking forward to putting together a really good proposal."
And Mayor Mike Moore of Jeffersonville, Indiana — which is just across the Ohio River — advised against ruling out the possibility that Seattle-based Amazon will choose the Louisville region. He is promoting a site at the River Ridge Commerce Center in his city, where Amazon already has a distribution center.
"People look at us as a long shot, but don't count us out," he said.
Since Amazon's announcement this month that it plans HQ2 — which would have 50,000 workers paid an average of $100,000 a year — numerous media sources have speculated on which communities might have the best shot.
Not one has mentioned Louisville.
A recent CNN report, for instance, listed eight cities "fit for Amazon's second headquarters" — Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Dallas, Austin, Boston, San Jose, and Washington, D.C.
Other media reports have concluded that Denver or perhaps Boston might have a leg up, while other published opinions have named Cincinnati and Nashville among the possibilities.
And a recent report in The Switch, an online website affiliated with The Washington Post, listed 39 cities that seem to meet Amazon's criteria. Louisville didn't make the cut; the closest suitors named were St. Louis, Atlanta, Chicago and Kansas City.
Seattle media have forecast that more than 100 communities are expected to bid for the massive project, which besides the bevy of jobs would include a $5 billion construction effort. Long-term plans call for up to 8 million square feet of office space.
The deadline for responding to the request for proposals is Oct. 19, with Amazon expected to announce the winner next year.
Criteria are outlined in an eight-page solicitation.
Amazon seeks a metro area with at least 1 million population with air service to the West Coast, acceptable infrastructure, and access to light rail, mass transit or a subway/metro service.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in an interview that the competition for the project "will be very hard. We have a lot of strengths, but we have some gaps."
He said the city is working with "regional partners" — as well as with Kentucky state government — in replying to the Amazon solicitation.
"It will be a big prize for some city," Fischer said, adding that "we've got a lot to offer. We will leave it all on the playing field" in developing a response.
Fischer acknowledged that the incentives will have to be "a large price to pay" and said it is possible that more than one site in the state might be offered. He mentioned the Louisville area and Northern Kentucky.
Fischer has directed his lead agency on development, Louisville Forward, to coordinate the local response to Amazon's proposal — working with Frankfort officials as well as economic development officials across the region.
"We can't talk about it," Louisville Forward spokeswoman Jessica Wethington said of the response.
Among the partners assisting Louisville Forward is Greater Louisville Inc., the metro chamber of commerce. Epperly Karem of GLI said assets include Louisville's being "a thriving city, with great talent and with all kinds of amenities to brag about."
One Amazon criterion is access to mass transit, with a further mention of "direct access to rail, train, subway/metro, bus routes."
Louisville doesn't have any subway or metro service, or even light rail. But J. Barry Barker, executive director of the Transit Authority of River City, said TARC plans soon to develop "ramped up (bus) express service" along Dixie Highway and out to Riverport — a possible Amazon site.
The Hoosier situation
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said recently that "Indiana has a tremendous opportunity to be seriously considered" by Amazon.
Holcomb said the Hoosier effort is being coordinated "with all interested regions of the state," and he has directed the state Economic Development Corp. to lead the effort — including recommending an incentive package as well as recommending the "best sites."
In Jeffersonville, the River Ridge Commerce Center (which is a former Army ammo depot) has several thousand acres, and the agency that manages it has confirmed that it plans to submit a bid to Amazon. The online retailer's distribution facility at River Ridge already employs about 3,000.
Moore, the Jeffersonville mayor, noted that American Fuji Seal picked River Ridge for a major facility in 2012 over competing cities that included Houston, Chicago, Indianapolis and Sacramento.
Moore said that air service should not be a concern, and that UPS' local hub has been an attraction for many companies that have located in this area. The UPS flights, he said, should be considered a strength in bidding for Amazon.
"We can meet a lot of the needs of this project when you consider all of our regional assets," said Suzanne Ruark, marketing director with One Southern Indiana, a Hoosier economic development agency.
Labor force available
Carol O. Rogers, deputy director of the Indiana University Business Research Center, which works with the U.S. Census Bureau, said there is an available labor force of almost 1 million people within 50 miles of Louisville, which has an unemployment rate around 5 percent.
She said that Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos "is dangling candy in front of all of us" and that Amazon could put the HQ2 project "wherever it wants" and with whichever community it chooses to partner.
Rogers said strategic advantages for Indiana and Louisville are their central locations. Indiana, she noted, is within a day's drive for 20 million people.
That "proximity issue" may be paramount for Amazon, she said. She said other requirements, such as air service, will be met in whatever area Amazon settles. Demand will translate into increased service, she said.
Likewise, Rogers said, any sufficient workforce issues will likely dissipate because "when jobs are available, people come."
Amazon's huge presence in any mid-sized community "will change its destiny," Rogers said. "Seattle grew up around Amazon."
Paul Coomes, an economics professor emeritus at the University of Louisville, said that Louisville may currently not be able to supply Amazon with 50,000 properly skilled employees. But he noted that "at one time, we didn't think we could supply UPS with 20,000. We did though, largely by attracting people from rural areas of Kentucky and Indiana. I think we could get 50,000 (for Amazon), but over the course of a decade."
Coomes acknowledged that Amazon choosing Louisville "would be a stretch." But he contended Louisville's numerous distribution centers are a plus, adding that "management likes to be close to operations."
The Louisville metro area is on the low end of Amazon's minimum metro-area population requirement of 1 million.
Matt Ruther, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the U of L Urban Studies Institute, the Kentucky census agency, said about 1.4 million people live in five Indiana and seven Kentucky counties near Louisville.
He said that if Amazon were to choose this area, "there would be significant in-migration and that 50,000 employees might eventually be found."
Although Louisville currently has no direct air service to the West Coast, local business leaders and the state are developing a large cash pool that could be used as incentives to expand air service.
The Regional Airport Authority will assist in developing any plan to attract Amazon and "we're confident Amazon will see the benefits of our region," said Natalie Chaudoin, an airport spokeswoman.
Ruther, at the U of L data agency, said he believes the region has plenty of available land, as well as adequate transportation facilities — the Ohio River, bridges and interstates — that might suit Amazon.
"Ultimately," Ruther said, "it will come down to what the city and state can offer in terms of tax incentives. That is what will end up tilting it one way or the other."
Amazon presence in Kentucky
Kentucky officials noted that the commonwealth has more than 60,000 workers at nearly 500 distribution and logistics facilities — which in Coomes' view would be an attraction for Amazon.
Jack Mazurak, spokesperson for the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet, said the cabinet's policy is not to discuss specifics about potential projects.
But he said that "Amazon has brought a widescale economic-development impact over the past two decades" to the commonwealth and that "its continued growth will benefit the state for decades to come."
Mazurak noted in a statement that Amazon and Kentucky have a significant relationship and that they jointly plan a nearly $1.5 billion shipping hub in Northern Kentucky. Amazon also employs more than 10,000 Kentucky workers at 11 fulfillment centers and has invested nearly $1.7 billion in Kentucky projects since 1999.
The statement noted that appeals to Amazon might include Kentucky's recent adoption of right-to-work legislation. And it was noted that the legislature soon could address tax and state pension reform.
However, some officials have said they fear that Kentucky's chances with Amazon have been hurt by the recently passed law that permits student organizations at public schools and colleges to exclude gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Reporter Sheldon S. Shafer can be reached at 502-582-7089, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.