NWI's Amazon HQ2 bid regional, eyeing prospect of future investment

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson on Tuesday displays the exterior of an application package the city is submitting to become home to Amazon's second headquarters.

At least 100 cities across the country submitted bids for Amazon's second headquarters, promising everything from free Primanti Bros. sandwiches to the opportunity to rename a town "Amazon" to the construction of a "hyperloop" between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Mayors from coast to coast made humorous videos touting their workforce, educational attainment rates and quality of life, joking that their city is the prime location and even Alexa agrees.

Northwest Indiana got in on the action, throwing its hat in the biggest economic development sweepstakes in recent history. Region officials stressed they weren't delusional about their odds in a pitched battle with heavyweights like New York City, Austin, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington D.C. But they said it was too big an opportunity to pass up, and that it could potentially attract more investment down the line, especially since the rapidly growing online retailer will need to continue to build warehouses, data centers and other facilities.

Gary, Hammond and Northwest Indiana submitted bids this week for a $5 billion corporate headquarters that could employ as many as 50,000 office and tech workers who would earn six-figure salaries. They pitched prospective sites in downtown Gary, out in the suburbs and on the Lake Michigan coastline, touting upcoming South Shore Line expansions, fiber connectivity and recreational opportunities like windsurfing on Wolf Lake and kayaking in the Marquette Park lagoon.

"The opportunity costs to not participate in this are too great," Northwest Indiana Forum President and CEO Heather Ennis said. "If you're not in it you can't win it. Participating in these races allows us to grow. Whether you're second or third or 27th, we need to continue to move ourselves up and have aspirations."

The Amazon chase gave Northwest Indiana leaders an opportunity to sharpen their pitches about the local workforce, infrastructure, amenities, low cost of business, transit, international airport, international port and proximity to Chicago, Ennis said. And that could help when pursuing future economic development projects. 

"It's swagger that we need," she said. "Confidence carries you far. If you present yourself as unworthy, people will view you as unworthy. We've got to believe in ourselves to take on big challenges."

More than 60 local leaders, including CEOs, college presidents and politicians, took part in a steering committee to bring the Amazon headquarters to the Region. Members said it was less of a working committee than a show of support that included input from groups like South Shore Clean Cities.

"I was not personally involved in any meetings of a steering committee, but the support was definitely there," Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Ty Warner said. "Our office provided data to the project, which I trust was helpful."

Gateway Partners Managing Partner Vance Kenney said there were no official meetings, but "certainly conversations."

"It was more of a request to endorse and support the effort by members of the business, public, trades and other sectors," Kenney said. "I sincerely hope that Gary and NWI can garner the attention of Amazon to do something impactful here."

Officials from as far as South Bend and Rensselaer backed Northwest Indiana's bid because of the vast, far-reaching impact such an employment hub would have.

"If we have 50,000 new jobs, people would come from Chicago and Rensselaer," Ennis said. "They'd take the train in from South Bend. It would mean huge opportunities and have a wide-reaching impact."

Ennis said the Region needs to work together for such major economic development opportunities.

"It's showing we would operate regionally to land this type of investment," she said. "Businesses, universities, governments are all on board to figure out what we need to do and talk about how we can work together."

Local leaders also recognize the importance of selling Northwest Indiana to Amazon, which continues to add warehouses and other facilities around the country.

"We're trying to attract growth, no matter what type of investment," Ennis said. "There might be a future opportunity for a fulfillment center, a data center, things like that. We have fantastic assets in Northwest Indiana, and this project helps us sharpen our message as we continue to grow our assets. We have a great labor force, a thriving and growing commuter rail system and a great tax climate."

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.