Northwest Indiana making a Region-wide bid for Amazon's second headquarters

Employees unlock and open the door to the first customers at the opening day for Amazon Books back in November 2015, the first brick-and-mortar retail store for online retail giant Amazon. Amazon announced earlier this month that it has opened the search for a second headquarters, promising to spend more than $5 billion on the project.   

Like a Powerball jackpot of hundreds of millions of dollars, the tantalizing prospect of landing the Amazon second headquarters could mean 50,000 six-figure corporate jobs and $5 billion in investment has made communities across the country undeterred by long odds.

Gary took out an advertisement in Monday's New York Times appealing directly to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and Northwest Indiana also is making a broader regional pitch for the widely coveted headquarters. The Northwest Indiana Forum, the Portage-based economic development agency, has contacted Amazon and is preparing a formal competitive bid.

The NWI Forum is working with both Gary and the state government, but is looking at potential locations all over the Region and not just in Gary, President and CEO Heather Ennis said.

"It's a huge opportunity that communities all over the nation are pursing," she said. "Opportunities like this come just once or twice in a lifetime."

Amazon seeks a deal

Earlier this month, Amazon opened a nationwide bidding war for incentives including tax breaks. The retail giant said it is seeking "a metropolitan area with more than 1 million people, a stable and business-friendly environment, urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent and communities that think big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options."

Northwest Indiana is pitching itself as part of the broader, talent-deep Chicago metro of 9.4 million, but with a lower cost of business and a more stable business climate than the city of Chicago itself.

"We are in the third-largest metropolitan area in the country," Ennis said. "We have an excellent quality of life, outstanding infrastructure and a lower cost of doing business. We have an extremely stable climate."

Though Northwest Indiana is better known for steel mills and oil refineries than glassy corporate office towers, some have said there's merit to such a pitch.

"If Indiana wants to respond to Amazon’s proposal, it should do so by putting forward Northwest Indiana," Indiana University Economist Morton J. Marcus wrote in his statewide newspaper column. "Access to the Chicago metropolitan area meets most of the conditions put forward by Amazon. The Gary/Chicago Airport does not have the air service Amazon might desire, but it could with the support of a company that sees itself as remarkably important."

Max Grinnell, an urban studies professor who writes The Urbanologist blog, wrote on Twitter that "I believe that Chicago is a better choice than Boston for #AmazonHQ2. And NW Indiana is a better choice than either of them."

He tweeted that the Region has lots of land, is relatively affordable and could expand transit options.

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"My thought is that NW Indiana is well positioned for a renaissance and that the arrival of Amazon would be the impetus," he wrote on Twitter.

A long shot

Northwest Indiana officials still know the Region would face long odds when faced with competitors like Chicago, Toronto, Austin, Boston, Denver, Dallas and New York City. Gary acknowledged in the New York Times ad its bid is "far-fetched," and Ennis said local economic development officials don't have any blinders on.

"All of us know this is a long shot," she said. "But we're prepared to go continually after it and earn opportunities like this."

The Northwest Indiana Forum has been working on the project with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and several local communities. Officials are eyeing a range of greenfield and infill sites across the Region where Amazon could build a new corporate campus.

"We're right in the Chicago metro so we meet the population threshold," she said. "We've got transit, great quality of life and schools like Notre Dame and Purdue. We've got a commuter rail line and access to O'Hare and Midway and international flights. Our area has quality of life and has to be attractive to them in cost savings."

Indiana University Northwest Assistant Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said Gary or Northwest Indiana could offer Amazon advantages.

"The city is a major artery for transportation with its own international airport and close proximity to major ports, highways and rail lines, as well as an extremely business friendly environment, low taxes and cost of living, excellent higher education facilities, plenty of affordable land and close proximity to Chicago," he said. "Furthermore, while we have a long history of manufacturing in the region, economic conditions change and high-paying service jobs like those associated with a corporate headquarters are exactly what the region needs today and would not only be welcome, but strongly supported."

He said the Region and Northwest Indiana should pursue ambitious goals, including trying to attract a large corporate headquarters.

"As the economic conditions continue to improve in Gary and Northwest Indiana, and with its long list of potential benefits, the city and Region will continue to become more competitive as a business location," Pollak said. "While the success of this particular appeal ultimately depends on the formal bid, whether the company to locate its headquarters in the city of Gary is Amazon or another firm, the city is working hard to build an extremely attractive environment for business, and it is only a matter of time before a major firm takes notice."

NiSource is the only Fortune 500 company with a corporate headquarters in Northwest Indiana. 


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.