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Can Buffalo compete with big cities for Amazon?

It did not take long for national guesswork about a second headquarters for Amazon to settle on a few big cities as likely candidates.

Places such as Austin, Boston and Toronto showed up repeatedly on speculative short lists after the online retail giant announced Thursday it is seeking proposals for a second office hub.

How does Buffalo compete?

Local economic development officials hope to tell a very different story.

"We're definitely going to be making a different kind of pitch than a Top 10 or Top 5 metro area," said Alan Rosenhoch, director of development for Invest Buffalo Niagara.

That will likely mean emphasizing the kinds of qualities that large urban centers such as New York City or San Francisco lack, including less expensive land, a low cost-of-living and cheaper operating expenses.

Officials also cited the region's easy transportation access to much of the United States and Canada.

"No other market can provide you as effective a platform to reach important markets in both countries," Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, wrote in a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that he circulated to area news outlets.

There's something else no other region can boast – Niagara Falls and its cheap electrical power.

That low-cost power has been used in economic development deals that have lured other companies, including Yahoo and BlackRock Inc., to build data centers in the region.

"We're not New York City or Boston, but none of those communities have the attributes that we do as well," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

Amazon on Thursday set off a scramble in economic development offices around the country on Thursday when it announced it was requesting proposals from metropolitan areas with populations of more than 1 million people to locate a second headquarters that could eventually employ more than 50,000 people.

Its requirements are exacting and include demands that could put the Buffalo Niagara region at a disadvantage, including proximity to an international airport and direct access to mass transit. Public incentives will also be "significant factors" in the decision, the company said.

The odds are long, several economic development officials acknowledged.

“Such a transformation has been a dream for generations of Buffalonians over the last few decades," said Yong Li, associate professor of operations management and strategy at University at Buffalo, who has studied Amazon’s business. "It would be a long shot, but nobody knows what's going to happen until we try."

There's another narrative area politicians hope to sell in any proposal to Amazon – the region is a different place than a decade or two ago.

“We’re the perfect type of community and story that Amazon likes to highlight, which is the comeback,’’ Poloncarz said.

Thomas Kucharski, CEO of Invest Buffalo Niagara, which was formerly known as Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said companies want to be "in places that are coming back and growing" and are looking beyond the cities that would have attracted large companies in the past.

“We certainly feel that Buffalo is positioned now with its momentum to be more attractive for these types of opportunities,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. "No stone will go unturned for potential sites in the City of Buffalo."

Local development officials and political leaders wasted no time in starting to mobilize their response to Amazon. The Erie County Legislature passed a formal resolution Thursday asking the county's development agencies to respond to Amazon. Niagara County economic development officials said they would prepare a package citing the county's "very unique trade benefits."

"This would be an absolute game changer for this area," said Erie County Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, who drafted its resolution.

Within hours of the company’s announcement, Invest Buffalo Niagara had reached out to key partners in the community, who committed to work together over the next month to submit a regional response.

“We’re in the process of trying to coordinate everybody,” Kucharski said. “We’re going to try to get everybody to put our best foot forward so we take the best shot at it.”

Rosenhoch on Thursday began working to connect state and local governments, as well as the private sector, to assemble the resources, data and other information that will strengthen Western New York’s chances. Those partners include all the local industrial development agencies, as well as academic institutions like University at Buffalo.

Rosenhoch cited the region's "highly educated workforce" and its ecosystem of colleges and universities as another draw for a company such as Amazon.

He also noted that the nonprofit organization recently completed a labor market assessment, which will address many of Amazon's likely questions.

The report found a "deep bench" of underemployed workers in the region, with about 132,000 people who are actively working but not fully using the skills, expertise and experience they've amassed.

There's also 33,000 unemployed workers, and another 16,000 people of working age who have dropped out of the workforce but could be coaxed back in, the report says.

“It’s pretty clear that Amazon wants to see coordinated efforts on the part of communities, and we are, I think, well-positioned as a metro area to respond well and cohesively to compete,” Rosenhoch said. “No one region is going to be perfectly positioned. Every region is going to have hurdles to overcome. It’s a matter of how completely regions can respond.”

Buffalo among many suitors eyeing a demanding courtship with Amazon

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