Hundreds show up for jobs at Amazon warehouses in US cities

In this Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, photo, an Amazon employee makes sure a box riding on a belt is not sticking out at the Amazon Fulfillment center in Robbinsville Township, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Let's start with this: The odds of Louisiana — specifically New Orleans — becoming home to online retail giant Amazon's second North American headquarters are extremely small, economic development experts agree.

Thursday is the deadline for states and cities, including Louisiana, to submit their proposals. 

But despite Louisiana's slim chances, experts say trying to win the deal is more about making a strong case for the state's advantages so as to get on Amazon's radar for possible future opportunities, such as a new warehouse or logistics facility.

Those smaller projects might be more suited to the state's strengths and would have the potential to create hundreds of new jobs. In recent years, Amazon has spent billions on such projects.

In an eight-page outline it released last month, Amazon described a lengthy list of requirements that it wants its second hometown to possess. The announcement has pitted dozens of cities and states against one another in an effort to land the big prize: a more than $5 billion, 8 million-square-foot complex that could eventually create 50,000 high-paying jobs and billions of dollars in additional spending.

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Amazon's splashy announcement — and the lucrative deals some locales are putting together — has reignited debate about whether offering corporate subsidies is driving boardroom decisions, or simply giving big, sought-after companies the leverage to pit one state against another. 

Privately, Louisiana officials may not expect to make the cut now, but it's important to make the state's case anyway, according to Michael Olivier, who served as Louisiana economic development chief under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

"In other words, don't miss the opportunity to make your case, even if your case doesn't fit with what they're looking for," Olivier said.

The greater New Orleans area meets some, but not all, of Amazon's prerequisites for a new headquarters, experts say. But perhaps the biggest challenge for any city, New Orleans especially, is having a ready stable of qualified workers.

Amazon is seeking an area with at least 1 million people, with thousands of them able to qualify for jobs in management, software development, legal, accounting and administrative positions.

In addition to its population requirements, Amazon is also looking for a stable and business-friendly environment, plus tax breaks and other incentives to help drive down its initial expenditure and the ongoing costs of doing business.

As this week's deadline loomed, some experts pegged Boston, Denver and Washington, D.C., as early favorites, with the Mile High City getting an edge in some reckonings because of its relative affordability and stable of young, talented workers.

As part of their formal proposals, some cities have turned to gimmicks to express their interest. Amazon rejected a 21-foot cactus sent as part of Tucson's pitch, and as a show of support in its bid, New York City on Wednesday opted to light some of its landmark venues, including the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center, in "Amazon orange."

Other states haven't shied away from opening up their wallets, including New Jersey, which offered as much as $7 billion in state and city tax incentives to try to woo Amazon to Newark.

While Amazon's population requirements rule out most Louisiana metropolitan areas besides New Orleans, the Crescent City seems unlikely to meet some of the retailer's other demands. The city's oft-criticized public transit system, its abysmal infrastructure and the annual threat of hurricanes are all potential problems.

But it does meet some of the stipulations, including being within 45 minutes of an international airport, with direct access to major highways. The city also boasts a major port with deepwater draft and access to six major railroad lines.

But the area's logistical advantages aren't going to be enough to get New Orleans into serious consideration, some experts contend.

"I don't think we have any chance at all," said Peter Ricchiuti, a finance professor at Tulane University.

While the eight-parish New Orleans metro area has about 1.3 million people, state officials will likely also include in their tally Baton Rouge's roughly 830,500 residents, as well as the Houma-Thibodaux area, which adds another 212,000 people.

Amazon is looking for 8 million square feet of office space in the next decade. That's about the size of its current home in Seattle, which has 33 buildings, 23 restaurants and 40,000 employees.

For comparison, Charity Hospital, which has sat empty since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has about 1 million square feet.

Although he declined to discuss details of the state's proposal — or even to confirm that one exists, citing his agency's policy toward negotiations — Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson noted that the state has a number of advantages and programs it can use to attract businesses.

At one time, the state had another tool at its disposal: a "megafund" of $500 million that could be used to help close big deals. But that pot is long since depleted.

In hypothetical terms, Pierson said the state could offer off-the-shelf incentives like its Quality Jobs program, which provides a cash rebate of up to 6 percent of a company's annual payroll for as long as a decade for new positions that pay at least $18 per hour. The state also offers workforce training through its FastStart program.

What's more, he noted that the cost of doing business in New Orleans is about 15 percent below the national average for corporate offices, citing research from the consulting firm KPMG. He also boasted about New Orleans' cultural advantages as "a world-renowned city with a great quality of life, with a great mix of diversity."

But finding the workforce would be a major hurdle. "It's a challenge of significant magnitude to build and grow a corporate headquarters of that size," Pierson said.

Olivier, who held the same job from 2004 to 2008, agreed.

"It's a long shot," he said. "When you're talking about 50,000 employees, a state like Louisiana — or any other state — would be hard-pressed to come up with that. You would have to live in a very large metropolitan area."

That factor, even more than financial incentives, could be the decision-maker, he said.

"It's workforce accessibility. That's the No. 1 criterion you need to achieve," he said. "After that, they're going to look at incentives, but incentives are really some of the last things they look at."

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.