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Is Toronto Cursing Amazon in HQ2 Bid?

City Used a Profanity in its Bid to Win Over the Seattle Company, Trying to Set the Tone With No Incentives
May 16, 2018
Pictured left to right: Rob Spanier, partner and principal, Live Work Learn Play; Bryan Buggey, acting CEO, Vancouver Economic Commission; Toby Lennox, CEO, Toronto Global; Blair Patacairk, VP global expansion, Invest Ottawa; Jennifer Keesmaat, CEO, Creative Housing

F-that, Toronto swears by its Amazon bid, even if doesn't include any public money.

"We are the only bid book that has a swear word in it. It's the one that begins with F and ends with K, and it's not firetruck," Toby Lennox, chief executive of Toronto Global, joked to a crowd of about 900 real estate professionals at the Land & Development Conference held yesterday at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Toronto Global, an arms-length organization representing municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area, presented the 97-page document on behalf of the region, and Lennox was part of a session at the conference that reviewed some of the Amazon bids in Canada to host HQ2, the Seattle company's second headquarters.

"We asked ourselves what tone we wanted to take, and it was quiet confidence," said Lennox, about the group's bid, which on page 57 quotes actor, producer and musician Idris Elba using a profanity to describe one of the city's signature annual events, the Toronto International Film Festival.

"This is one of the greatest film festivals in the world, and you are amazing; you’re real moviegoers. We feel very privileged to bring our film. I just realized what TIFF actually stands for: Toronto is f**king fantastic," said Elba.

Lennox said the Toronto bid, which along with Boston is the only one made intentionally public, was designed to showcase the city as a clear alternative to competitors south of the border.

Jennifer Keesmaat, chief executive of Creative Housing and a former chief city planner with Toronto, noted there were 238 submissions and 11 Canadian cities that applied.

"Some cities showed their best colours, and some groveled in a way that didn't look so good," she said, adding she didn’t see a "race for the bottom" to try and create incentives among domestic entries. Toronto offered no incentives.

Lennox said right after the bid was announced he went to Seattle and got a tour, and it was clear the issue for Amazon was the supply type of talent available to HQ2.

"The question we asked ourselves is there any amount of money that will make a difference to the supply of talent tap," Lennox said, referring to the absence of tax incentives in the Toronto bid. "It was more of an attitude to Amazon. We are having success here, you can come and join our success. We couldn't find an incentive relative to them and generally didn't think it would be fair to Ontario and the Toronto region business community that for some reason we are going to give [Amazon] piles of cash."

In an interview, Lennox said he was told initially by Amazon to expect a final decision in October but has been wrong "every step of the way" when it comes to predicting moves of the e-commerce behemoth.

"Talent pipeline," Lennox told CoStar News about the number one thing the Toronto bid has in its favour. "It's the assurance they are going to get the talent they need now, going to need in five years, 10 years and 15 years. It's the biggest decision that company is going to make and they need to know that for 25 years they will have the pipeline they need."

The number one thing working against Toronto? "It's just politics," said Lennox, acknowledging the backlash Amazon could face for putting HQ2 in a foreign city.

Other panelists from cities that lost out on the bid feel like they won by just pitching because the process helped their regions pull together to attract businesses.

"We got the silver medal," said Bryan Buggey, acting chief executive officer of the Vancouver Economic Commission, referring to the 3,000 jobs Amazon said two weeks ago would be coming to his region. "We didn't know we were part of HQ1."

Blair Patacairk, vice-president of global expansion for Invest Ottawa, said his region's decision to bid forced Ottawa to team up with Gatineau in neighbouring Quebec across the Ottawa River.

"When Amazon came along we met the minimum criteria for a million people, and we added another province and another city," he said. "It has forever changed the way we do business."

Garry Marr, Toronto Market Reporter  CoStar Group   
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