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Gary and Hammond both chased the widely coveted Amazon HQ2, a second corporate headquarters for the Seattle-based online retail giant that promises 50,000 high-paying jobs and $5 billion in investment in the lucky city that lands it.

Amazon, which made founder Jeff Bezos the wealthiest man in history, invented Prime Day, its own annual holiday, and is widely credited with driving many brick-and-mortar retailers out of business, got 238 bids from across North America for HQ2. But it passed on Northwest Indiana when narrowing its list to 20 finalists that include Chicago and Indianapolis.

Hammond and Gary ultimately both fell short in their self-admittedly longshot campaigns for Amazon’s second headquarters, but it’s not clear whether they were ever even in the running for the more attainable warehouse that’s coming to southeast Wisconsin.

Just a few years after opening a $250 million warehouse that employs 1,500 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the northern end of the Chicago metropolitan area, Amazon now is looking to build a four-story fulfillment center with more than 1,000 jobs in a business park in Oak Creek just off Interstate 94, according to the Milwaukee Business Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment, but the Racine Journal Times reported plans already have been filed with the state for a “commercial warehouse and distribution facility serving as an internet retail fulfillment center.”

As Amazon expands its distribution network across the United States, it's entirely bypassed Northwest Indiana, sometimes billed as "the crossroads of America," thus far, while putting warehouses in central Indiana, Illinois and southeast Wisconsin.

Amazon occupies about 1.5 million square feet in Kenosha, where it opened a fulfillment center in 2015. The fast-growing online retailer, which now also owns Whole Foods, went from not having a single warehouse in Illinois in 2014, to having 8,000 employees in the Land of Lincoln and nine fulfillment centers, including in Joliet, Romeoville and Monee.

Indiana has seven Amazon warehouses, all of which are located downstate.

The new warehouse in Oak Creek is projected to be even bigger than Kenosha's, at least 2.5 million square feet.

A secretive process

Unlike the high-profile Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes, economic development projects normally are shrouded in secrecy. Site selectors hired by companies to scout out locations approach cities and economic development agencies about potential warehouses or factories with code names like "Project Arrow" or "Flying Eagle," and the locals often don't learn the company they're trying to court until late into the process, after other prospective sites have been winnowed down.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he wasn’t sure whether his city had gone after the fulfillment center that's coming to Oak Creek, but said it would be open to pursuing an Amazon warehouse in the future.

“That’s definitely something we would love to have,” he said.

Gary was mum on whether it made a case for a fulfillment center, more plausible to attract than a corporate headquarters being pursued by heavyweights like New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto.

“The city of Gary continues to pursue all economic opportunities with viable companies,” spokeswoman LaLosa Burns said.

The Northwest Indiana Forum routinely goes after warehouse projects, but is uncertain whether it mounted a bid for an Amazon center, Director of Marketing and Communications Raeann Trakas said.

"We didn’t work on a Project Arrow," she said, referencing Wisconsin's code name for the Oak Creek warehouse. "It is unknown if the project had a different name in Indiana."

And even after discovering who they're working with, economic development officials can be sworn to secrecy about particular projects.

Lake County IN Economic Alliance President and CEO Karen Lauerman wouldn't comment on whether her agency tried to lure the latest Amazon fulfillment center, but said her agency works on all state, regional and locally generated leads.

"Lake County is in competition for many projects, including large-scale e-commerce and product distribution centers," she said.

"LCEA continues to focus a portion of our effort on this fastest-growing industry cluster, recently attending an exclusive national e-commerce site-selector conference to bring additional attention to our county and communities."

'A highly desirable location'

Demand for such facilities has been soaring as more and more consumers do at least some of their shopping online. 

The Lake County IN Economic Alliance, for instance, recently was in talks with a developer interested in building an e-commerce warehouse of between 1 million and 3 million square feet that could employ up to 3,000 workers somewhere in Lake County, potentially by the Gary/Chicago International Airport.

"Amazon and similar e-commerce distributors like Chewy.com, as well as brick-and-mortar names with an e-commerce component, are continuing to grow and expand in the Midwest," Lauerman said.

"Lake County is a highly desirable location within the Chicago metropolitan footprint and positioned to attract these types of businesses and jobs. LCEA understands the multiple factors driving the fulfillment site decisions with the goal to keep Lake County in the mix and in the forefront for these types of projects."

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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.