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These cities have the best chance of winning the war for Amazon's new headquarters

  • Amazon plans to spend $5 billion on a second headquarters in the U.S., which will employ 50,000 people.
  • Amazon favors metro areas with 1 million people and a stable, business-friendly environment.
  • Analysis from CNBC's America's Top States for Business and the U.S. Census Bureau gives high grades to a number of southern cities with strong economies and workforces.

If Amazon plans to stick to the stated criteria for its coveted second headquarters location, it may want to look south, at least according to a new CNBC analysis using data from our 2017 America's Top States for Business study and the Census Bureau.

The analysis gives high grades to a number of southern cities, including Atlanta, Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina. Other strong contenders are within the Washington, D.C., area, including Northern Virginia; and Austin, Texas. All have strong workforces, reasonably good economies and business-friendly regulations.

Meanwhile, some of the more sentimental choices, such as Chicago, Pittsburgh and possibly Detroit, may have a tougher go of things. And some locations that submitted headline-grabbing bids, such as Tucson, Arizona, which sent Amazon a giant cactus, may not want to get their hopes up.

Amazon is promising to spend $5 billion on its so-called HQ2 project, which the online retailer claims will ultimately employ 50,000 people in well-paying, high-tech jobs. The company says it favors metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people, a "stable and business-friendly environment," a place that can attract and retain strong technical talent, and a community that thinks "big and creatively."

Also included in a request for proposals issued by Amazon in September: convenient access to mass transit and an international airport, a highly educated labor pool, a strong university system and a diverse population.

CNBC measures all of those criteria in our Top States for Business study, and while no one outside of Amazon knows for certain how the company will score things, our data offers some insight into which places have the best chances. They include:

Charlotte/Raleigh-Durham/Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina

Overall grade: B

Raleigh, North Carolina
Sean Pavone | Getty Images
Raleigh, North Carolina

The three largest metropolitan areas in the Tar Heel State, each submitting bids, benefit from a state with one of the best workforces in the country and a heritage of innovation dating back to the Wright Brothers.

Counting against the state is a lack of mass transportation and a nagging lack of inclusiveness. North Carolina repealed the most controversial parts of its so-called bathroom bill, but it still lacks statewide protections against discrimination and expressly bars them at the local level. North Carolina finished No. 5 in this year's Top States rankings.

Atlanta

Overall grade: B-

The city of Atlanta, the capital of Georgia
Steve Kelley | Getty Images
The city of Atlanta, the capital of Georgia

Don't just take our word for it. The Irish online betting site Paddy Power lists Atlanta as the odds-on favorite to win HQ2. Beyond that, Georgia boasts the best economy in the nation, according to our rankings. Its workforce is abundant and well educated, and its transportation infrastructure is top-notch.

One possible location in metropolitan Atlanta is suburban Stonecrest, where Mayor Jason Lary has offered to hand over 345 acres to Amazon, rename it "Amazon, Georgia," and install the company's founder as chief executive.

"Jeff Bezos can be the mayor, CEO, king, whatever they want to call it," the mayor told CNBC last month.

But that may not be enough to overcome some of the region's weaknesses. Atlanta stumbles a bit on quality of life, and Georgia can be stingy when it comes to incentives. But the capital of our 2017 Top States runner-up should earn a spot on anyone's shortlist.

Washington, D.C./Virginia

Overall grade: B-

Washington, D.C.
Danita Dellmont | Getty Images
Washington, D.C.

It might not hurt that if Amazon were to put HQ2 here, CEO Jeff Bezos could not only visit his company's second headquarters but also check in on his employees at the Washington Post, which he owns. Multitasking doesn't factor into our analysis, however.

Instead, look at the business-friendly regulations in Virginia, as well as an unparalleled pool of educated workers in and around the nation's capital. But the region earns a failing grade when it comes to big and creative thinking about locations. (Creative thinking? This is Washington, after all.) The capital region is notoriously expensive and is not big on incentives.

Austin/Houston/Dallas

Overall grade: B-

Austin, Texas
David Sucsy | Getty Images
Austin, Texas

The aforementioned Mr. Bezos grew up in Houston. Again, not part of our analysis. But the Lone Star State offers a host of advantages should Amazon decide to locate there. No state has a more developed infrastructure, and few offer more options for higher education. Plus, Texas is generous when it comes to incentives. A Moody's Analytics study in September listed Austin as the most likely winner of HQ2.

But the sluggish energy economy has hit Texas' once pristine finances, hurting the state in the stability department. And quality of life, including a lack of inclusiveness — not to mention a lack of health insurance — could be a problem.

'A' for effort doesn't count

Amazon says it received 238 proposals from 54 states, provinces, districts and territories in North America by the Oct. 19 deadline. By our analysis — not to mention the numbers — most don't have a prayer of winning. But that has not stopped them from trying, or projecting anything less than extreme confidence.

Greg LeRoy, an expert on state and local incentives, and the executive director of the non-partisan think tank Good Jobs First, believes that is exactly what Amazon was hoping for. He says Amazon has structured the competition to elicit the maximum response — and the greatest possible range of incentive offers.

"They brilliantly crafted a document that everybody can read as they wish, to convince themselves that they should apply," he said. Meanwhile, "You've got all these politicians out there who feel like they've got to be active on jobs."

Some of the boldest proposals have come from places that are struggling the most financially. They include:

Newark, New Jersey

Overall grade: D+

The downtown Newark skyline.
Emile Wamsteker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The downtown Newark skyline.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has offered $7 billion in incentives for Amazon to build the facility in Newark, even though the state faces more than $60 billion in unfunded pension obligations.

Christie says he has a bipartisan agreement in the legislature to raise the cap on tax subsidies, allowing New Jersey to pay Amazon as much as $10,000 for every job it creates. In September he vowed to sign a bill into law before he leaves office in January.

Governor-elect Phil Murphy, who takes office on Jan. 16, has not yet said whether he fully endorses the bid, but said during the campaign that he is committed to bringing Amazon to the Garden State. In our analysis, New Jersey suffers from severe instability — not just in its finances but also in its infrastructure.

Chicago

Overall grade: D+

Chicago skyline.
Henryk Sadura | Getty Images
Chicago skyline.

Illinois is offering $2.25 billion in tax breaks and incentives for Amazon to locate at one of 10 sites in the Chicago area. The package is worth even more if the company builds on state-owned land being offered. Illinois has the worst credit rating in the nation, as it lurches from one budget crisis to the next, but Gov. Bruce Rauner says the state couldn't afford not to bid.

"This Amazon opportunity is a home run for Illinois or wherever they choose to go," he told CNBC on Oct. 16. "Our tax revenues will go up by billions of dollars when we win Amazon. So we can easily afford it. Them coming here helps us with our challenges."

But those challenges are formidable, according to our analysis. Not only are the state's finances a mess, its regulatory structure is difficult. The state does well in higher education but poorly for its overall workforce.

Other cities that have attracted attention with their bids may also have a hard time measuring up. Detroit, which is reported to have developed its bid in cooperation with neighboring Windsor, Ontario, nonetheless rates a C+. The local economy has improved considerably since the city's 2013 bankruptcy, but it is not quite there yet.

It is a similar story for Pittsburgh, which has performed well in other studies, including the Moody's analysis. But our grade is a D+, due in large part to Pennsylvania's relatively stagnant economy.

And Tucson, Arizona, which tried to woo Amazon with that giant cactus, might be better off trying to attract more technical workers. It comes in at a C.

Long shots

Some other cities appear to be hoping Amazon will be willing to set aside some of its most basic demand.

That might explain bids from places like Hickory, North Carolina. While the city benefits from some of the same advantages that propel Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro into contention, the city has a population of only about 40,000 people. Even if you add the rest of the metro area, including Lenoir and Morganton, it is still about 600,000 people short of Amazon's requirement.

The story is similar in Anchorage, Alaska, where a group of local business owners are spearheading a bid despite a metropolitan population of about 400,000. The population of Scarborough, Maine, is only about 19,000, or less than half the number of people Amazon plans to employ (the town is officially part of the Portland metro area, with a population of about 500,000). But officials there are undaunted.

"This is one of those things where if you build it, they will come," Scarborough town manager Thomas Hall told the Portland Press-Herald.

Despite the long odds, we graded Anchorage and Scarborough, anyway, because you never know. Alas, both locations barely registered a blip, receiving failing grades overall. Maine has the dubious distinction of having the worst workforce in the nation. And while Anchorage may offer daily flights to Seattle, Alaska's economy is in the dumps and costs are crippling.

Speaking of Seattle, the home of Amazon's current headquarters earns a respectable B–. Washington is America's Top State for Business in 2017, after all. But Seattle is hurt by high costs and crumbling infrastructure, which are among the likely reasons Amazon is looking elsewhere to expand.

Amazon's bargaining chip

Amazon has already shown itself to be adept at wringing incentives and tax breaks from state and local governments. From 2005 to 2014, the company received at least $613 million in local government subsidies to build warehouses, according to a 2016 report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. But the HQ2 sweepstakes takes the process to a whole new level.

"Obviously, they're here to optimize the tax breaks that they get at their final choice," said LeRoy of Good Jobs First.

In fact, if Amazon plays its cards right, it could wind up with a negative tax rate in the jurisdiction where it locates. Amazon doesn't pay the state. The state pays Amazon.

"In many states, they will be automatically exempt from sales tax on building materials, machinery and equipment," he said. "There will be enormous pressure on local officials to abate 100 percent of their property taxes for many years. And at the state level, many states have automatic investment credits and employment credits that will completely obliterate their income-tax liability for many years."

Amazon could even negotiate a provision allowing it to sell those tax credits to other companies, an incentive Tesla won from Nevada to locate the company's giant battery plant there.

LeRoy believes the states are playing this all wrong, and taxpayers will pay dearly as a result. He says the states are allowing Amazon to dictate all the terms when the states could have some leverage of their own.

"They should feel free to talk to each other and collude and drive as stingy a bargain as possible," he said.

But in the economic development game, where state and local economic development officials are used to cutthroat competition, old habits die hard.

"Eighty years of training doesn't go away overnight," LeRoy said.

That would explain places like Cleveland, where officials say they submitted a competitive bid to Amazon but are refusing to tell pretty much anyone just what is in it — not the taxpayers, not the media and certainly not other states.

"We're trying to win," Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson told CNBC on Nov. 3.

On our report card, Cleveland gets a C-.

Grading the HQ2 bids

We graded bids for Amazon's HQ2 project based on the company's four main criteria: A metropolitan area with more than 1 million people; a stable, business friendly environment, ability to attract and retain strong talent, and creative thinking when considering locations.

City, State
Population
Stability
Talent
Location
GPA
Letter Avg
Chicago, IL A+ F D- C- 1.66 D+
Newark NJ A+ F D+ F 1.42 D+
New York, NY A+ F F F 1.25 D
Cle/Col/Cin, OH A+ F F B- 1.67 C-
Austin, TX A+ F C A- 2.5 B-
Atlanta, GA A+ B- C- C- 2.6 B-
Seattle, WA A+ D+ B+ D+ 2.58 B-
Denver, CO A+ B- B- F 2.42 C+
Salt Lake City, UT A+ B- C- D+ 2.5 B-
Orlando FL A+ B- F C 2.17 C
PGH/PHL, PA A+ F F D 1.25 D+
Detroit MI A+ D+ D+ C+ 2.33 C+
Boston MA A+ D+ B+ F 2.25 C+
Minneapolis MN A+ C- B- D- 2.34 C+
DC/VA A+ C A- F 2.5 B-
Portland, OR A+ F D- D+ 1.58 C-
RAL/CLT/GSO, NC A+ C+ C- B- 2.75 B
Hickory, NC F C+ C- B- 1.67 C-
PHO/TUC, AZ A+ D+ D+ F 1.75 C
Nashville, TN A+ A- F B- 2.67 B-
Las Vegas, NV A+ C F C- 2 C
Anchorage, AK F F F F 0 F
Scarborough, ME F F F F 0 F
Sources: America’s Top States for Business 2017, U.S. Census Bureau

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