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Not So Fast Newark - Somerville Says It Has What Amazon Needs for HQ2

Credits: Marc J. Bonamo

SOMERVILLE, NJ - Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and assorted state and Essex County officials will try to convince online behemoth Amazon.com to invest billions in Newark as the ideal location for its planned expansion and an east coast headquarters complex worth billions to the state and local economy.

Somerville Mayor Brian Gallagher says not so fast, suggesting Somerville has just as much to offer the Seattle-based conglomerate as does Newark.

Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, announced its solicitation of North American regions earlier this year in a highly-competitive selection process for its second corporate headquarters, or HQ2 which would include upwards of 8 million square feet. 

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The opportunity could bring 50,000 jobs and billions of dollars of private investment to the state.

Christie, accompanied by Booker, the former mayor of Newark and his successor, Mayor Ras Baraka, presided at a white-collar, bi-partisan pep rally Monday in Newark at Rutgers Business School, where Christie announced that the state would endorse Newark as New Jersey’s preferred location for Amazon’s self-described HQ2.

Failing to garner the state’s official endorsement, Somerville has decided to go it alone.

Just hours after the last guest had left Rutgers’ Newark campus Somerville’s Borough Council voted unanimously at its Monday night meeting to submit a formal response to Amazon’s RFP (Request for Proposal), joining more than 50 other cities and regions in the mega-billion sweepstakes.

While Christie and other invited guests spoke in superlatives about all that Newark has to offer, Colin Driver, Somerville’s Director of Economic Development, was already busy preparing the borough’s proposal, which centers on a 22-acre tract of property at the borough’s former landfill, a portion of which fronts on Route 206. The tract has been undergoing environmental remediation for several months.

Gallagher and Driver like the odds.

Driver believes Somerville has a 50/50 chance of being selected as a finalist for the Amazon jackpot, a decision expected sometime next year.

Gallagher likens Somerville’s bid to the Biblical story of David vs. Goliath which tells of the nine-foot giant Goliath, a soldier from Gath, who boasted he could beat any individual soldier in the Israelite army. Nobody in the army dared to take him on -- except David, a shepherd boy who believed strongly in God and who was able to vanquish Goliath.  

Driver said the property could easily accommodate a 500,000 square foot building, which Amazon has cited as the first step of its planned expansion. The RFP estimates Amazon will need 8 million square feet of space to complete its expansion.

“Their RFP says they’d like their first building to be close to a transportation hub and/or buses,” Driver said. “They would like to be in proximity to a downtown that’s got arts, entertainment, restaurants, an overall good community feel,” he added.

“They also want to be close to highways, airports and have available open space for recreation. It sounds like they’re describing Somerville,” Driver said.

The borough-owned property is also adjacent to the NJ Transit Raritan Valley line; close proximity to rail is one of Amazon’s criteria, along with access to interstate highways and airports. The proposed site is adjacent to the borough’s “Green Seam,” a passive recreation park that will weave through the 80-plus acres of the former landfill. Retail and/or residential development is also planned for the site.

Further expansion of a network of satellite campuses would afford adjacent towns in Somerset County an opportunity to to cash in on the Amazon jackpot, according to Driver.

Earlier this month, Somerville, in conjunction with the Somerset County Business Partnership and an assist from the Somerset County Freeholders, had submitted a formal RFP to the state’s Partnership for Action and the Business Action Center for consideration, as did other municipalities, including New Brunswick.

New Jersey had instructed those towns interested in pitching Amazon to send their proposals for its review and eventual endorsement; Somerville was notified that its proposal “did not meet the criteria set by the state and would therefore not be submitted with the state’s response,” according to the resolution approved by the Borough Council, which continued, “Be it resolved that the Borough Council authorizes the Administrator and Director of Economic Development to finalize the RFP response package and forward it to Amazon.com by the response deadline.”

“I can guarantee you if we do nothing, we will get nothing,” Gallagher said. “It is a David versus Goliath situation, but we’ve been known to take on the state before and prevail.

“I will hold Somerville and Somerset County up against any portion of this state, any day, any time,” Gallagher continued. “What this area has to offer for people to live in and work in is unmatched; you won’t find a caliber of lifestyle like this anywhere.

“We hit every mark they’re looking for,” Gallagher said.

Amazon has a long list of wants, not the least of which is a high quality of life for its employees – a robust downtown with world-class restaurants and shopping.

Somerville has that – and more, according to the mayor, quick to point out that Wolfgang’s, a highly-acclaimed steakhouse with international locations, chose to open in Somerville a few years ago.

“Take a step back; who would have thought that Somerville would attract a world class restaurant like Wolfgang’s,” he said.

"Newark was the clear winner of this competition, and Newark has earned the state's support," Christie said, citing the city's status as a unique education, technology, transportation, and cultural hub. 

Christie noted that the state was willing to give $5 billion dollars in tax incentives over ten years upon the creation of the 50,000 new jobs. 

"Let any other state go and try and beat that package," Christie said, also noting that the City of Newark was willing to offer a local, 20-year property tax abatement that could be worth another $1 billion dollars, and would waive its municipal wage tax to encourage Amazon to come to the city.

"Newark, New Jersey has often been maligned over the previous decades, but let's tell the truth about this incredible city. For centuries, Newark led this nation in innovation, in invention, and in industry as one of America's premier cities," said Booker, who served as the city's mayor from 2006 to 2013.

"Like all major Northeastern industrial cities, we saw tough times. But the truth of Newark in the last decade plus has been of a city charging back, and reclaiming its space, step by step, as one of America's greatest cities," Booker said. 

"Newark is not a charity case. It is the choice for companies who want to relocate and remain competitive and strong, not just in New Jersey and not just in our nation, but in a global context," Booker added.

“We’ve got a 50-50 shot like everybody else,” Driver said.  “If Amazon came back to us and said ‘it looks interesting, but we need financial assistance,’ we’d need the state to jump in; that would be better than not having anything at all,” he added. “It would be pretty stupid if we got to the point of being selected as a finalist and the state didn’t help the town.”

Amazon has set a deadline of Thursday, Oct. 19 to receive all proposals, according to Driver.

Newark isn’t the only big city in pursuit of Amazon.

“Boston is making a big push, Baltimore, Atlanta there are a number of serious players,” Driver said, “but I like the challenge of throwing our hat in the ring.

“We’ve got the space, everything they are looking for from a community/slash human point of view,” he added. A great downtown, the property  adjacent to the Green Seam which would give them a linear park alongside their headquarters,  all the new residential stuff going up near the train station.

“It’s a walkable, bikeable town,” he continued. “We’re 2-3 miles from every major highway in the area, there’s the bedroom communities to our west, north and south, we’ve got great universities, Rutgers, Princeton and Raritan Valley Community College and so it goes on.

“As a location that is central to most things, Somerville and Somerset County both are really ideal,” Driver said.

“Quality of life will play a big part in their decision; once they start doing their due diligence, the crime statistics in northern New Jersey, they might push back from that,” Driver said.

Much is at stake. Driver said a state planning official likened the competition for Amazon to a “feeding frenzy.” Jersey City hired a team of lawyers and planners to work on its proposal; Newark has a team of 10 people, according to Driver.   

No matter to Somerville.

“We’re going to give it our best shot, that’s for sure, Driver said.

“We’re up against the wizardry of technology and expensive lawyers putting together applications as far as the major cities go, but our application will rely on the magic of Somerville and Somerset County and the lifestyle we have,” Gallagher said.

“The state obviously has its favorite cities that they drive significant development to all the time; it’s not right,” Gallagher added. “It shouldn’t be that way. We took a look at the criteria that Amazon has put forth in their RFP and you know what, Somerville and Somerset County hits every mark.”

Gallagher said Somerville’s entry in the sweepstakes may pay dividends in other ways.

“We have the ability to attract Amazon; if not Amazon, there are those who are watching what Amazon does. It puts us on a map that we’re not on right now.”

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