On brink of deadline, several Philly suburbs develop Amazon fever

Almost 20 local leaders, politicians, and businesspeople, mainly men in suits stand around a podium; the bacground a bridge and river

Delaware County Council announces the county’s proposal to serve as the site for Amazon HQ2, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, on the Chester waterfront. Joined by Delaware County Commerce Director Patrick Killian, Delaware County Chamber of Commerce President Trish McFarland, Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland and federal, state and local leaders, Council highlighted the county’s assets including multi-site redevelopment opportunities, transportation infrastructure, incentives, local labor and workforce, and logistics. (Provided)

We’re like Philly, but better.

That was the message from three suburban Philadelphia communities vying with the region’s metropolitan core for Amazon HQ2, shorthand for the online retailer’s proposed second headquarters.

Three communities near — and in some cases bordering — Philadelphia hope to leverage the city’s pull, but present themselves as better positioned, business-friendly alternatives.

(For more information about Philadelphia’s bid and its chances, check out WHYY reporter Jim Saksa’s in-depth coverage of how the city’s workers, assets and infrastructure would fare with Amazon in town.)

In its call for applications, Amazon stated a preference for “metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people” and included urban and suburban sites under that umbrella. Places such as Bensalem Township, which borders Northeast Philadelphia in Bucks County, took that as a green light.

“We met all the criteria they were looking for! We have the land where it could go, of all the things they’re talking about, the transportation, the colleges, all of those things are right here,” said Bensalem Mayor Joe DiGirolamo. Alone, Bensalem does not meet all the criteria. With a population of 60,000, it needs to count Philadelphia in order to make Amazon’s 1 million or more threshold.

But, if allowed to leverage Philadelphia’s size, workforce, and international airport, these suburban sites say they have a leg up on the competition.

Promoting suburban advantages

“Taxes are cheaper out here than they would be in the city,” added DiGirolamo, mentioning Philadelphia’s wage tax. The first of the three to announce its bid, Bensalem offered up a 120-acre parcel near a railroad line.

This week, two other suburban sites came forward with proposals: Delaware County and Bristol Township, which lies adjacent to Bensalem along the Delaware River.

“There’s not as many layers of bureaucracy they’re going to have to go through, compared to the bigger cities,” said Bristol Township Council President Craig Bowen, who listed Philadelphia’s wage tax and its stormwater-management requirements as two downsides to locating there.

Bowen said the imminent opening of a connection between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-95 in that township makes the area prime for a business that turns on shipping goods across the country. Its proposed location is a riverfront property in Maple Shade Beach that’s owned entirely by the Dow Chemical Company.

Delaware County’s proposal includes two sites, one an industrial parcel in Chester City, located near Talen Energy Stadium. Delaware County Councilman David White said the area also offers something Amazon others can’t: a chance to completely reverse the fortunes of one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the country.

“This could fix many of those problems — certainly the economic problems and, I believe, the crime problems” in Chester City, he said. Chester, home to about 33,000 people, has one of the highest murder rates in the country, and its tax base has hollowed out since its manufacturing peak decades ago. If a suburban campus would be more desirable, Delaware County suggested Middletown Township as another possibility.

The cost of pitching varied widely among bidders. Delaware County spent an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 on application materials produced by Econsult, an economic development consulting group, according to White. If its Amazon proposal is unsuccessful, he said the materials collected will be used to try to attract other businesses to the waterfront city.

DiGirolamo said Bensalem did its analysis in-house.

How any suburban location stacks up in the quality-of-life metric is another big question. Amazon touts the fact that 20 percent of its Seattle employees walk to work, and more than 50 percent do not drive, so decamping for a suburban location could mean a massive culture shift for the company.

As for incentives, all three were mum on how they would compete with the potential tax breaks that seem all but assured to lure such a large corporate investment.

These contenders largely took shots at each other — and at Philadelphia. Dozens, if not hundreds more competitors are vying for the same pot of gold: 50,000 new jobs and $5 billion in capital investment Amazon promises to bestow on its chosen location.

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