Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

“Prime” Location? Harrisburg area suggested for new Amazon headquarters.

Could the old State Hospital grounds be the perfect spot for a new Amazon.com headquarters?

Amazon.com announced this morning that it is scouting locations for a second headquarters complex—and cities across the country are gearing up to woo.

The announcement that Amazon would build a $5 billion facility supporting 50,000 jobs immediately lit up social media. Some local activists and officials suggested that the sprawling, for-sale Harrisburg State Hospital grounds off Cameron Street would be a perfect fit.

Indeed, the Harrisburg metropolitan area is already home to four Amazon warehouses. But what else would it need to beat other cities vying for the headquarters project?

For starters, another half-million people, said David Black, president of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce & CREDC.

“Harrisburg is too small to put in a bid, but I do think there’s an opportunity to put in a bid with partners in York and Lancaster,” Black said on Thursday.

He said that the population of the Harrisburg metro hovers near 560,000 people, falling short of Amazon’s preference for metro areas with more than 1 million people.

Black thinks that the city could offer a competitive application if it works as part of a regional team. He said that the region’s existing relationship with Amazon distribution centers could distinguish it from other cities, as could its proximity to highways, major East Coast cities and the resources of the Penn State network.

“Working with the broader region is the only way this will work,” Black said.

In the press release announcing the location search, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said that the new headquarters will be a “full equal” to the company’s 8.1-million-square-foot headquarters in Seattle. That location, which comprises 33 buildings housing more than 40,000 employees, has a yearly operating budget of $1.4 billion.

Harrisburg might score better on a few other criteria that Amazon outlined: a stable and business-friendly environment; urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent; and communities that think big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options.

Most significantly, Amazon is asking hopeful cities to identify possible incentive programs, including tax credits and exemptions.

One potential pitfall of a regional application is that it would require a patchwork of incentives, since most of these programs are created at a municipal level.

Harrisburg has a LERTA tax abatement program to encourage building in the city, and Black said that neighboring municipalities have programs ranging from LERTAs to Keystone Opportunity Zone designations. Since applications for the program are due Oct. 19, there is no hope of creating uniform incentive programs on a regional level.

“We can only offer what’s in place now,” Black said, adding that there are 103 municipalities in Dauphin and Perry counties alone.

He did say that input from the commonwealth could strengthen the incentives portion of the application, since it has successfully negotiated with Amazon in the past to build warehouses.

“The state did work with Amazon on some of their distribution facilities in PA, and they put together a nice package,” Black said. “Since this is a generic application, the state can say, ‘We offer incentive packages based on more detail.’”

On the whole, Black believes that business and political leaders in the midstate could put together a thoughtful bid for the Amazon project. He thinks that workforce data from the Penn State Data Center will strengthen the bid, as will the region’s established relationship with the company.

“We have a track record with Amazon,” Black said. “They’re here, they know the workforce, and it’s not like we’re coming in out of the cold.”

Black cautioned the public from becoming too excited about the prospect of Amazon breaking ground in the midstate, but said he believes that the application process itself will benefit the community.

“Whether or not we get it, the exercise is worthwhile,” Black said.

Members of the city’s legislative branch made moves on Thursday to begin considering an application. Councilman Westburn Majors said he contacted city officials and business leaders shortly after seeing the morning announcement.

“It is my hope that the administration can work with the county, the commonwealth, local business groups such as the Chamber, CREDC, etc., to determine if putting in an application is something that they would consider,” Majors said.

“We would love to have Amazon come here and will see what we can do as a collective team to make it happen,” said Ben Allatt, chair of the council’s finance committee.

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