Will Amazon HQ2 bid help South Florida market itself as a region?

Amazon is expected to choose its HQ2 city by the end of the year

Mike Finney, Kelly Smallridge and Bob Swindell
Mike Finney, Kelly Smallridge and Bob Swindell

Inter-county cooperation got South Florida on Amazon’s short list of possible sites for a second headquarters — and may signal more collective marketing of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County.

“Individually, we’re okay. Collectively, we actually are impressive,” said Mike Finney, president and CEO of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s economic development agency, who spoke at an event in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, along with his peers from economic development agencies in Broward and Palm Beach County.

Amazon has put Miami on a list of 20 cities, shortened from 238, that the Seattle-based online retailer is evaluating as the site of a $5 billion second-headquarters complex with 50,000 jobs. “They said they want to make a decision by the end of the year,” Finney said at a meeting at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott North hotel hosted by NAIOP, a commercial real estate development organization.

The Beacon Council and its counterparts in Broward and Palm Beach County – the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance and the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County – are now providing more information to Amazon about their collective bid to bring the company’s second headquarters to one of eight proposed sites in South Florida – five in Miami-Dade, two in Broward and one in Palm Beach County. Finney previously said the number has been reduced from eight, but did not specify a new figure.

The highly publicized site-selection process is proceeding under a blanket of secrecy. Finney is one of three South Florida officials in direct contact with Amazon regarding site selection for its second headquarters, including Bob Swindell, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale, and Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County. All three signed confidentiality agreements with Amazon that restrict what they can say publicly.

“Now we’re in the process of doing a tremendous amount of follow-up [with Amazon], providing an incredible amount of additional detail,” said Finney, South Florida’s primary contact with Amazon.

The Beacon Council in Miami was “responsible for writing the Amazon proposal” on behalf of Broward and Palm Beach County as well as Miami-Dade,” Finney said, “and it was challenging to keep top of mind that we were working for all three counties.”

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But the Beacon Council CEO also said South Florida’s three counties have talent, technology, infrastructure and other assets “as a collective region that individually are a little bit tougher to sell.”

For example, with Brightline, the new inter-city passenger train service in South Florida, “it’s easier to make the case that this is one big talent pool,” Finney said, referring to the tri-county area’s labor force of 3.1 million.

Smallridge said regional approaches to employment-generating projects have gained support in Palm Beach County. “Our political leadership has really embraced the concept of regionalism,” she said. But generally, political leadership in economic development “tends to be a little bit myopic and territorial.”

Smallridge, Finney and Swindell all said financial incentives are helpful in recruiting companies to South Florida but not decisive.

“It’s not all about incentives … Typically, about a third of our projects use incentives,” said Swindell, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance.

“For us, the real driver is new jobs,” not just in Broward but also in South Florida, Swindell said. “So, a company moving from one county to another is not a candidate for incentives. It’s not something the three of us [counties] encourage.”

Finney said that despite resistance to regional economic development in South Florida, “the more we do it, the more comfortable we get and the more comfortable our elected officials get.”