If senior executives at Amazon's Seattle headquarters had never heard of Bradford, Innisfil or West Gwillimbury before, the little Ontario towns have put themselves on the radar screen with a surprise joint bid to become home to the online retailer's second global headquarters.
The communities located in Simcoe County north of Toronto are a long-shot, but their bold move highlights the eagerness of regions across Canada to win Amazon's business and draw up to 50,000 new full-time employees to their areas.
At least 12 Canadian communities have revealed they submitted bids for the headquarters by Amazon's Thursday night deadline, including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax. Six Ontario communities also bid, including a Toronto regional group, as well as Sault Ste. Marie, Windsor, Hamilton, Ottawa-Gatineau and Simcoe County.
More than 100 communities across the United States were expected to join the frenzied bidding war, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie offering Amazon up to $7-billion (U.S.) in tax incentives. Among the more desperate offers, the town of Stonecrest, Ga., said it would rename itself Amazon if it wins.
Some of the Canadian bids do not appear to meet some of Amazon's key priorities, including a stated preference to locate in a metropolitan area of at least one million people that has a nearby international airport and mass transit links to the new site.
Amazon also called for communities to outline available incentives they will offer, saying tax costs will be a significant factor in its decision making.
Many Canadian cities, including Montreal and Vancouver, have not revealed details of any incentives they may be offering, saying Amazon asked for bids to be confidential. Others, like Toronto, have publicly stated any are not offering any additional financial incentives.
Montreal bidding head Hubert Bolduc, CEO of regional economic development group Montréal International, said the city and province already have numerous available incentive programs for any company moving to Montreal – including lucrative research and development tax credits – but said he could not reveal whether any additional incentives were offered to Amazon.
Mr. Bolduc said Montreal's bid stresses the city's affordability and the benefits of Quebec social programs such as lower-cost postsecondary education, subsidized day care and a drug insurance plan.
"It gives Montreal a very strong case for being a great, fun-to-live-in, not-expensive city," he said.
Winnipeg said in its bid that existing federal and provincial tax credits would amount to $1.76-billion in cash incentives for Amazon, and said the City of Winnipeg "would be at the table" to discuss additional tax financing for its real estate development, which could achieve "significant savings for the project."
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage has acknowledged his city is a long shot because it is not offering major financial incentives, but he told reporters Halifax is a city Amazon's employees "can fall in love with."
Calgary launched a cheeky ad campaign in The Seattle Times, telling Amazon executives, "Not saying we'd fight a bear for you, but we totally would." Calgary's bid mentions the large volume of office space already built in the city and empty due to widespread lay-offs.
Former Amazon executive James Thomson, who headed the business allowing outside companies to sell on Amazon's platform, said Friday he was more impressed by Toronto's bid than he had anticipated. He believes the city may have a shot at success because of Ontario's announced commitment to funding more university spots in high-tech programs.
Mr. Thomson said there has been too much public focus on financial incentives, and said Amazon's top internal concern is finding a large pool of technology talent. Amazon expects to hire up to 50,000 employees for its new headquarters, and is already struggling to fill all its existing jobs, with 3,000 technology positions currently open, Mr. Thomson said.
"It's just staggering, the magnitude of the problem," he said.
Mr. Thomson said he still isn't sure Amazon would put its second headquarters anywhere outside of the U.S., but said the company may like the comparative ease of attracting and moving foreign employees to Canada compared to the United States.
He also believes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would not be deterred by U.S. President Donald Trump's strong protectionist sentiments if he otherwise favoured a Canadian location for business reasons.
"Jeff Bezos is going to do what he wants to do," he said.
Amazon's instructions to bidders say that finding a suitable physical site is of "paramount importance" in its decision. The company's Seattle offices have sprawled into 33 buildings in the downtown core, and it is seeking a second headquarters location where it can eventually build 8 million square feet of space.
Toronto's bid proposes several sites in downtown Toronto as possible locations. Most may not be large enough, except for a 100-acre "east harbour" region in central Toronto, just east of downtown. It would be close to a new Google Sidewalk Labs mixed-use neighbourhood planned for the east side of Toronto, known as Quayside.
The Toronto bid also offers nine large locations in suburban areas surrounding the city, stretching from Ajax in the east to Burlington in the west. The sites include land in downtown Mississauga adjacent to the Square One Shopping Centre.
Amazon is expected to reveal a short list of 20 to 30 cities later this year and announce its choice in 2018.