Soon after becoming mayor of Shakopee five years ago, Brad Tabke convened a news conference to announce a late bid to become the site of the new Vikings stadium.
To call it a long shot would be generous. But Tabke later credited that splash of publicity for a surge of commercial development on land that long had languished empty.
Now Ramsey County is flinging two key sites within its borders at the Olympics of corporate relocation: Amazon’s HQ2, its quest for a second headquarters that could eventually house 50,000 highly-paid workers.
And last week, officials were quick to confide that their quest, like Tabke’s, is as much about getting attention as seriously shooting for a win.
Said Louis Jambois, former chief of the St. Paul Port Authority who was drafted to lead the county’s battle:
“I think Tabke was right. There’s a whole professional discipline out there of site selection consultants, whose job is to assist businesses in finding places to expand or relocate. They work nationally.
“So the way I see this, frankly, is that when each area around the country submits its premier sites to Amazon, that will cause a feeding frenzy from national consultants who will find out where the premier sites are in every [metropolitan statistical area] in the country. That’s why we think there’s no way to lose, even though Amazon will get hundreds of opportunities.”
Each metro area is being asked to filter out and prioritize an expected blizzard of local aspirants. Toward that end, Ramsey County and its public- and private-sector partners have shown a willingness to make huge changes in a long-developed site plan for 427 vacant acres in Arden Hills, the site of the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP).
Those plans have been delayed for a variety of reasons, with site work pushed back to at least 2018. A master developer, chosen more than a year ago, urged swift action to avoid missing a huge window in the market before it slumps.
The same ripe market conditions could apply to downtown St. Paul, where the county has hit turbulence with its attempt to develop a handful of acres on the riverfront right outside the courthouse. The site of the former county jail and West Publishing buildings drew a potential development worth up to $250 million earlier this year, but that’s now off.
Both the Arden Hills and downtown sites have issues for a development the size of Amazon’s. Suburbs would be have to handle tens of thousands of new vehicles on their freeways, and Amazon’s offer speaks of an empty urban site with transit.
But it also wants lots of land to play with, 100 acres or more — a lot more than what St. Paul offers.
For that matter, what would residents of a small suburb like Arden Hills make of a colossus like Amazon riding into town?
Mayor David Grant isn’t worried. While the 50,000-worker figure drew plenty of attention, he said, a closer look at the documents shows that there’s no thought of anything remotely on that scale being plopped down at once. Amazon’s request for proposals speaks of a 15- to 17-year build-out adding up to $5 billion in capital investment, with Phase One requiring as little as 500,000 square feet.
“It’s a phased deal,” Grant said. “It would start modestly and grow, as Amazon did in Seattle. I think people would be pleased.”