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Robinson: Together or not, Buffalo and Rochester stay Amazon long shots

If you combine one long-shot bid for the coveted second Amazon headquarters with another long-shot bid, does that make the odds of winning all that much better?

Development officials in Buffalo and Rochester, after candidly assessing their meager chances of luring Amazon and potentially 50,000 jobs to one of the cities, said Thursday they have agreed to work together in their pursuit of the online retailing giant.

Teaming up, they reckon, takes two weak bids and creates a single one that has added heft and can better provide some of the things that Amazon wants. Instead of separate bids from metro areas that barely meet the minimum population threshold that Amazon set of 1 million people and that rank outside the top 50 for total population, the combined bid covers an area with 2.2 million people that ranks in the high 20s.

"It's really us versus everybody else, and this is a very competitive process," said Thomas A. Kucharski, the president of Invest Buffalo Niagara, the local business development and marketing group that is teaming up with its Rochester counterpart, Greater Rochester Enterprise. "This is very much a one-region story."

By linking efforts, the combined Buffalo Rochester metro corridor "can offer a proposal that is both compelling and extremely competitive," the two groups said in a statement.

But it probably still won't be anywhere near compelling enough, especially in a competition that pits Western New York against the trendier and economically stronger places, like New York City, Chicago, Atlanta and Minneapolis.

"Perhaps this is the best opportunity for them to compete," said Greg Biryla, the executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a business group. "If you look at the areas that are bidding, they're some of the biggest metropolises in the country."

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E.J. McMahon, the research director at Albany think tank Empire Center for Public Policy, questioned what joining forces would do for the two cities.

"I just find it difficult to believe that Amazon is going to second-tier metro areas, whether they're collaborating or not," McMahon said. "I don't think any of the upstate metros are in a league to compete for this."

It is a rare instance of Buffalo and Rochester collaborating on economic development, pairing two cities separated by just 60 miles, although the psychological gulf between them often seems far wider.

Buffalo views itself as a major league city, with the Bills and the Sabres, that has always been bigger than Rochester, and still is, though barely.

Rochester sees itself as a white-collar hub for innovation and technology that always has had more of a modern-day bent than blue-collar Buffalo.

Amazon last month spelled out a set of criteria for cities interested in bidding for its new headquarters, and with it the promise of 50,000 jobs within 10 to 15 years that pay an average of more than $100,000 apiece.

In return, Amazon wants a metropolitan area with at least 1 million people. It wants to be in an area with a “stable” economy that is “business friendly,” and it wants an initial building of 500,000 square feet on a location that could eventually accommodate 8 million square feet of office space. It also wants access to major highways, mass transit on the site and to be near an international airport with non-stop flights to cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

It also wants access to a highly educated labor pool and to be located near a strong university system – something that a joint proposal would better meet by combining universities such as the University at Buffalo with resources from the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology and roughly 60 other colleges and universities.

And it wants to be in a place where it can attract top technical talent and offers a wide array of recreational and educational opportunities that contribute to a strong quality of life.

Amazon's announcement that it was launching a competition for its second headquarters set off a flurry of activity among major cities across the country, each scurrying to come up with packages that combine what almost certainly will be hundreds of millions – and more likely, billions – of dollars in incentives with other resources that each area can offer. The proposals are due next week.

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Neither Buffalo nor Rochester individually were widely considered to be a strong contender in the competition. A ranking of potential Amazon sites by a private consulting firm, Anderson Economic Group, listed 35 metro areas that met all of Amazon's criteria, and neither Western New York city made the cut.

But even that is subjective. A ranking of 65 potential sites released Thursday by Moody's Analytics ranked Rochester as the No. 4 contender, behind Austin, Texas; Atlanta and Philadelphia. Rochester's lower costs, attractive quality of life and good transportation system offset low marks for its business environment. Buffalo ranked 21st in the "data-driven" Moody's study, but it also was singled out for having the lowest cost of living, mostly because of our low housing prices.

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"Still, Rochester is rightfully an extreme long shot," said Adam Kamins, a Moody's analyst. "The foremost challenge involves finding up to 50,000 workers to fill the jobs created by Amazon."

Development officials from Buffalo and Rochester began talking about working together within days of Amazon's announcement, Kucharski said.

In many ways, it makes sense. Western New York is more affordable than many other high-flying parts of the country. Commutes are easy and relatively short. Buffalo is a gateway to Canada. Rochester has a solid presence in technology and innovation.

"It increases the opportunity, and certainly makes for a more competitive application," said Ryan Silva, the executive director of the New York State Economic Development Council in Albany.

But the two-city bid also has some disadvantages, most notably the 60-mile distance between the two cities. While Kucharski notes that the Los Angeles metro area covers more territory, it also isn't split between two city centers, with 30-odd miles of farmland in between. The distance, however, can be overcome by the ease of getting around Western New York, he said.

"I can get to  Rochester faster than I could get out of my neighborhood when I was living in Washington, D.C.," he said.

The two-city approach also doesn't mean that the joint bid will focus on sites in the middle, in someplace like Batavia.

"The focus is really on the urban centers of Buffalo and Rochester," said Matt Hurlbutt, the interim president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise.

David Robinson is deputy business editor. He writes a column on Buffalo's Business.

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