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A Washington D.C.-based startup, Progressive Shopper, has set out to mine political spending from hundreds of major brands. Bloomberg photo by Bess Adler.

Minnesota’s bid for Amazon focused on quality of life over cash incentives

Minnesotans know it’s impolite to brag, but that didn’t stop us in 2017 when trying to lure Amazon’s second North American headquarters to the Twin Cities.

Instead of getting out taxpayers’ collective wallet to entice the online retail behemoth, state boosters tried more of a humble brag — Minnesota Nice.

While other communities offered huge amounts of money — more than $1.5 billion in the case of New York City’s now infamous bid — to attract the retailer, Minnesota’s 122-page bid for the company, released Monday after months of secrecy, leaned heavily on the state’s quality of life as a selling point.

Two short pages from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development describe the more than $20 million in grants and other state support available to attract businesses to Minnesota. Although an expansion like Amazon had planned typically only resulted in $3 million to $5 million in public subsidies, according to DEED.

Nearly two dozen more pages in the bid highlight everything from the Twin Cities’ bike-ability, its vibrant restaurant scene and the more than 3,500 jazz concerts that venues host each year.

We know now that Amazon went for the money.

Out of the 238 proposals submitted by communities across North America, the Twin Cities bid wasn’t even among the top 20 finalists. Amazon picked New York City, with its massive incentives, and Arlington, Va., which offered more than $500 million worth of enticements.

However, when the New York public got wind of how much the city had committed, outcry ensued and the company eventually scrapped plans to put part of its new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens.

Fight for secrecy

Minnesota leaders’ failure to win over Jeff Bezos with the charm of Midwestern living didn’t keep many of the details of the state’s bid from being a closely guarded secret. Greater MSP, the civic group enlisted to compile the Twin Cities pitch, refused to release its details until Amazon said it no longer required secrecy.

After fighting more than a year to keep the bid under wraps, Greater MSP provided it to the DEED Monday, which then posted it online.

Peter Frosch, executive director of Greater MSP, said Monday that Amazon was no longer insisting the details be withheld. He defended the decision to initially withhold the information saying it was key to the region’s competitiveness.

“There are times when keeping private clients’ competitive strategic information is necessary so this region has the opportunity to compete for hundreds and hundreds of jobs,” Frosch said.

Public Record Media, a government transparency watchdog, disagreed. They filed a lawsuit last year to try to force Greater MSP to release the bid in its entirety.

A Ramsey County court ruled in favor of Greater MSP, but an appeal was in the works. Leaders of the watchdog claimed victory Monday.

“Its been our belief since the beginning, when you get public and private entities co-mingled in an economic development project, the details of that project need to be accessible to taxpayers,” said Matt Ehling, executive director and one of several former journalists working for the group. “We are pleased today the bid is going to be released.”

What we already knew

The state had already released three boxes worth of documents from local governments and other organizations in response to public-records requests about the bid from reporters.

Those records showed 18 sites local leaders considered pitch-worthy as Amazon’s second headquarters.

At the top of the list was an area available for redevelopment in Minneapolis’ North Loop, along St. Paul’s riverfront, in Bloomington near Mall of America, on vacant land in Apple Valley and on a former Army ammunition plant in Arden Hills. Sites in Rosemount, Woodbury, Inver Grove Heights and Lakeville also were possibilities.

All of those communities included something unique in their pitch, such as Minneapolis touting the North Loop as the “coolest neighborhood in America” or Bloomington noting the 1,000 square feet of parkland per capita and 34 miles of National Wildlife Refuge along the shore of the Minnesota River.

Why Minnesota bid

State leaders got into the race for Amazon’s second headquarters and the estimated 50,000 jobs that came with it because they believed it would be a big win for the state economy. A study by the Metropolitan Council estimated bringing the retailer to the Twin Cities would have $130 billion in economic impact over 15 years.

Wages and housing prices would increase and another 90,000 jobs would be created to support the influx of new workers at the $5 billion campus Amazon promised to build.

State leaders hoped Minnesota’s self-described exceptionalism would be enough to close the deal.

“People who move here, stay here. People who grew up here and moved away, come back. Our community is open, affordable, and filled with opportunity,” the bid said.

But Amazon shopped around and found a better deal elsewhere.

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