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Why tech executives aren't counting Pittsburgh out of Amazon HQ2 race

Aaron Aupperlee
| Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, 11:30 a.m.
Amazon boxes are seen stacked for delivery in the Manhattan borough of New York City, January 29, 2016.
REUTERS
Amazon boxes are seen stacked for delivery in the Manhattan borough of New York City, January 29, 2016.
In this April 27, 2017 file photo, construction continues on three large, glass-covered domes as part of an expansion of the Amazon.com campus in downtown Seattle. Amazon said Thursday, Sept. 7, that it will spend more than $5 billion to build another headquarters in North America to house as many as 50,000 employees.
In this April 27, 2017 file photo, construction continues on three large, glass-covered domes as part of an expansion of the Amazon.com campus in downtown Seattle. Amazon said Thursday, Sept. 7, that it will spend more than $5 billion to build another headquarters in North America to house as many as 50,000 employees.

Pittsburgh has had a week to mull the possibility and the pros and cons of landing Amazon's second headquarters.

Officials from the city, Allegheny County, state, the universities and foundations started to work on courting Amazon once the news broke, but details about how they will do that have been scarce.

Meanwhile, a tech-fueled game of fantasy football broke out as people ranked potential cities and wondered what might lure the Seattle-based behemoth.

Pittsburgh is definitely a top-10 contender, said John Boyd, a principal consultant at The Boyd Co., a location consulting firm in Prince­ton, N.J.

“This is the project of our time,” Boyd said. “This is the Holy Grail of economic development.”

Boyd noted Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania's relationship and history with Amazon. It probably doesn't hurt that Jeff Wilke, one of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' top executives, head of the company's consumer business, grew up in Western Pennsylvania.

The Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority's board of directors voted Thursday to hire consultant Maya Design to help with the city's bid. The URA, city, county and foundation will share the cost of the consultant.

Amazon has promised to invest $5 billion in the construction and operation of its second headquarters, speculating that it could generate as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs.

“Did I read that right; they're talking about 50,000 employees?” Mark Magalotti, co-director of University of Pittsburgh's Center for Sustainable Transportation Infrastructure, asked Thursday. “That's a lot.”

If you're wondering if Pittsburgh's transportation infrastructure could handle such an influx, the answer is no, Magalotti said. He said our traffic system is maxed out.

But that shouldn't keep Amazon away, Magalotti said. Any city on Amazon's shortlist will need major transportation improvements to accommodate the new headquarters.

“There is no perfect location,” Magalotti said.

Transportation woes and other concerns were on the minds of a handful of founders and executives in Pittsburgh's tech community Wednesday evening. The prospects of Amazon locating its second headquarters in Pittsburgh came up during a panel discussion at Spaces, a co-working location inside Bakery Square.

Brac Webb, co-founder and CIO of Robotany, a robotic, indoor, vertical-farming startup, had selfish reasons for wanting Amazon to base its headquarters here.

Robotany sells some of its produce to the Whole Foods store in Upper St. Clair. Amazon recently bought Whole Foods, and Webb hopes a partnership with Amazon could make it easier for Robotany to deliver its fresh greens.

“Hopefully, we're a good reason for them to come,” Webb said.

Others on the panel were cautious about Amazon.

Ellen Saksen, CEO and co-founder of Go Jane Go and Amelia, startups designed for women business travelers, brought up some of Pittsburgh's challenges. Saksen noted the city's traffic and infrastructure problems. She talked about the effect Amazon's headquarters could have on housing and displacing residents.

“I don't want to be down on it,” Saksen said, adding, “There are a lot of problems that we have to solve before we invite 40,000 high-earners here.”

Natalie Glance, vice president of engineering at Duolingo, said Pittsburgh needs a better airport with more direct flights. Everyone on the panel agreed.

Airport officials unveiled a $1.1 billion overhaul of Pittsburgh International Airport this week and weren't shy about nodding toward Bezos.

“I think this is the kind of forward-thinking initiative Amazon will be looking for,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in announcing the project. “This announcement today, a month before we're going to be submitting our proposal, is perfectly aligned with what we'd like to see.”

Glance questioned whether Amazon would look to Toronto to avoid issues Duolingo faces with visas for foreign workers.

Brian Finamore, co-founder and CTO of Gridwise, an app designed to help Uber and Lyft drivers earn more money, said Pittsburgh has the talent to attract Amazon and that the prospect might look good on paper but it might require more thought, Finamore said.

Pittsburgh's team doesn't have that long to think. Amazon wants to hear from cities by Oct. 19.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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