Why Not?: How LaGrange pursued Amazon and what it could mean for the future

Published 8:22 pm Friday, January 26, 2018

For its second headquarters, Amazon was looking for a metropolitan city with a population of more than 1 million people and a mass transit system. LaGrange doesn’t meet either of those standards, but that didn’t stop city leaders from putting in a bid for the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters.

If you ask Scott Malone, president of the Economic Development Authority, why a city of just over 30,000 population would dream so big, he’ll likely reply with his own, similarly phrased question.

Why not?

The question has become a rallying cry for Malone and his staff, and they even named LaGrange’s Amazon proposal the “Why Not Project.”

“I don’t think there’s a project out there that we don’t think we can win. Quite honestly, we felt the same way about that one,” Malone said. “You never know about a company like Jeff Bezos and Amazon. They think outside the box a lot.”

LaGrange officially submitted its bid in October and was undoubtedly one of the smallest of the 238 cities to do so. Amazon narrowed its list of finalists to 20 cities last week, and LaGrange didn’t make the cut. Metropolitan cities like Atlanta, Dallas, New York and Los Angeles filled all of the top 20 spots.

Although LaGrange was left out, Malone said representatives from Amazon called him before the finalists were officially announced and discussed how impressed they were with the city’s proposal.

“I think we accomplished exactly what we wanted,” Malone said.

Some of the cities that made proposals to Amazon went all out. Stonecrest announced last year that it would change its name to Amazon if it were picked as the winner of the project. LaGrange didn’t go quite that far.

“While we are proud of our LaGrange name heritage, we do not intend to change the name of our community, but we would feel honored and privileged to be able to call LaGrange home to Amazon’s HQ2!” said the cover letter of the LaGrange proposal.

“The state put everyone who they thought were viable candidates and made a statewide package, but because we didn’t have a million people in our city limits, didn’t have mass transit we didn’t technically qualify, which is why we just sent them a proposal from ourselves,” Malone said. “I told them if we were fortunate enough to win we would definitely work with the state to have a combined offer to take care of our needs.”

The proposal’s cover letter refers to LaGrange as the “greatest little city in America” and goes into detail about the $1 billion in infrastructure projects currently underway.

LaGrange’s size obviously hurt the city’s overall chances, just because Amazon was looking largely at metropolitan areas.

Amazon’s new $5 billion facility is expected to employ 50,000 people — which is more than LaGrange’s entire population.

With 458,880 people, Raleigh, North Carolina, was the smallest city by total population to make the final cut. Raleigh’s population could even be considered small in comparison to some of the other giants in the running, but it has 15 times as many people than LaGrange.

New York City, with a population of 8.5 million people, is the largest finalist.

“We think we have a unique community with a lot of distinct assets that distinguish us from some of the other places they are looking for,” said LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton. “We are close to Atlanta and close to the airport and close to some of the other amenities. We also have quality of life, we have natural resources, and we have other strengths. It was a bit of a Hail Mary, but I think it was a worthwhile process for us to submit the application.”

Outside of population and the rail system, Malone believes LaGrange was a fit for almost all of Amazon’s other requirements. The city meets the airport requirement by being within 45 miles of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and is located along a major interstate.

As part of the bid, LaGrange had even proposed 100 acres near Interstate 85 for the headquarters.

“You had to have 100 acres minimum, and that was the site we said would be ideal. It’s right on the interstate,” Malone said.

“You’ve got a lake on it and all the quality of life stuff they were looking for.”

But just because LaGrange didn’t get the bid, doesn’t mean the city isn’t on the Seattle-based company’s radar. Not only did the bid itself likely open some eyes, but Atlanta appears to be one of the frontrunners to land the company’s second headquarters.

“The intent was to get their attention and we certainly did,” Malone said.

So, what would it mean for LaGrange if Atlanta won the Amazon sweepstakes?

“Hopefully we will now be on Amazon’s map, so if they were to choose Atlanta, which I think is one of the leading prospects for HQ2, then they might very well have ancillary needs for distribution and other types of facilities that LaGrange might be a prospect for,” Thornton said.

Malone said LaGrange had previously discussed a data and logistics center with Amazon, but if Atlanta wins the bid, a lot of activity and business could be heading this way.

“They have new drone technology, drone delivery technology. We had already been pitching them sites at the airport that we have. Being 45 minutes from the airport, you can be downtown [Atlanta] in an hour,” Malone said. “They are going to have great access to us and everything they need, and this Interstate 85-corridor is a huge, booming part of that. It’s going to have an enormous impact on the entire state of Georgia, and I’ll tell you that LaGrange would be right at the top of that list.”

Thornton said he hopes that Amazon chooses Atlanta because it would be great for the state of Georgia and LaGrange.

“I think what is good for Atlanta is good for LaGrange,” Thornton said. “Quite frankly some of the reasons we’ve had some of the successes we’ve had with industrial recruitment and Great Wolf recruitment and so forth all relate to our proximity to Atlanta, the ease of access to Atlanta and the importance of the Atlanta airport being on our side of the city.”

If Atlanta did win the bidding war, Thornton and other leaders with LaGrange would love to see the new Amazon headquarters on the south side of Atlanta, where it would be in closer proximity to Troup County.

Even though Amazon didn’t come calling, Malone and his staff have plenty to do. He made four presentations on Wednesday alone.

“There are a lot of the communities that would like to have one project going, and we have 25 in the pipeline,” Malone said.

And when the next big opportunity comes along, expect LaGrange to ask the same question — why not us?

“A lot of people looked at it and thought we were crazy, and I think they’re realizing we’re not. In the long run people will see that and understand that,” Malone said. “There were only 237 other communities that bid on it in the whole country, so LaGrange being on that list is a big deal.”