As Philly’s Amazon HQ2 Hopes Dim, Details Emerge of the City’s Secret Pitch Dinner

With reports coming about second-round visits to other cities, observers are wondering whether Philadelphia is even still in the running. Meanwhile, documents obtained by Philly Mag reveal Amazon’s apparent code name for the city and a secret dinner at Barbuzzo between the company and special city guests.

Upstairs at Barbuzzo | Facebook

Philadelphia first submitted its bid to be the site of Amazon’s second headquarters, known as HQ2, in October 2017 and made the short list in January, along with 19 other finalists. The effort has reportedly cost Philly organizations around $545,000, and city officials are still fighting to keep the bid’s incentives package a secret.

Now, reports are trickling out from the Wall Street Journal and other outlets that the tech giant spent the summer making second visits to a handful of its finalist cities. Company representatives reportedly revisited Chicago in mid-August and Miami around the same time. The company even made its way back to our neighbors New York City and Newark in the past few months. There have apparently been follow-ups with Washington, D.C., too.

Given the number of reported second visits and Jeff Bezos’s promise to announce an HQ2 decision by year’s end, it’s fair to ask whether Philadelphia is still in the running. Three sources close to the effort to secure the second headquarters have suggested to Philadelphia magazine that Amazon has yet to make a second formal visit to the city to scout sites or meet with officials.

One of those sources, Wilco Electronic Systems executive vice president Brigitte Daniel, who was involved with the initial “Philly Delivers” storytelling phase of the city’s proposal, told Philadelphia magazine on Tuesday that the city “hasn’t heard much from Amazon” since its first visit in February. Daniel is confident that if Amazon had been in touch, she would have heard.

The city isn’t sitting around feeling dejected, she said, but is “moving full steam ahead with or without Amazon.” And there’s still hope: “There are great chances for Philadelphia, so we’re making sure we’re ready for a visit [should Amazon decide to come back].”

If Amazon doesn’t swing back around to Philly, though, it won’t be because we failed to bring out the big guns. We already knew that the city had welcomed a delegation from Amazon’s search effort in late winter; now documents obtained by Philadelphia magazine reveal some of what happened during that visit, including an exclusive dinner with a hand-picked list of powerful local executives and other invited guests.

Dinner Prep

According to documents obtained by Philadelphia magazine, Philadelphia’s host committee — a group of eight local executives — welcomed a team of seven Amazon representatives on Monday, February 26th, for an exclusive dinner on the second floor of none other than one of Philadelphia’s best — Mediterranean eatery Barbuzzo. The organizers also invited 15 additional Philadelphia guests.

According to the documents, the host committee included Commerce Department leaders — director Harold T. Epps and chief of staff Sylvie Gallier Howard. PIDC, the organization that’s been spearheading Philadelphia’s communications with Amazon this year, also brought two representatives to the table: president John Grady and chief strategy and communications officer Anne Bovaird Nevins. Two other city representatives on the host committee were Vaughn Ross, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Kenney, and Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development. Dennis Davin, Pennsylvania’s secretary of Community and Economic Development, and Matt Cabrey, executive director of the Select Greater Philadelphia Council, round out the eight committee members.

The Special Guests

As for the invited guests, the host committee handpicked and gathered business and civic leaders to represent the region to Amazon, according to an email correspondence obtained by Philadelphia magazine. The same email, from a dinner organizer, made it clear that the event would be informal — an unscripted opportunity for Amazon to meet with key Philadelphians who shape the city and region.

The 15 guests called to the table are not all a surprise — many of the attendees were vocal during the Philly Delivers application process, offering up takes on why Philadelphia is the best place for Amazon to settle with its $5 billion investment and 50,000 high-paying jobs.

Let’s start with the glaringly unsurprising attendees.

Drexel University president John Fry, who, when Philly submitted its bid in an event at the Barnes Foundation, got on stage and declared, “There’s no better place for Amazon’s HQ2 than Philadelphia.”

In the same vein was University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, who called herself an “avid admirer of Amazon” in a letter of support included in the city’s application.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia CEO Madeline Bell, who wrote a letter of support to help lure the tech giant, was also in attendance. As Philadelphia’s second-largest employer behind Penn, the leader wrote, “many great things — including important collaborations with companies like Amazon — are in our future.”

Aditi Dashputre, head of new product development at La Colombe, was in attendance. The company and its CEO, Todd Carmichael, have been outspoken in promoting Philadelphia to Amazon, even going as far as 3-D printing the tech company’s logo onto lattes last year.

Others in attendance included First Round Capital partner Josh Kopelman, Vanguard chairman William McNabb, Thomas Jefferson assistant dean and associate professor Bon Ku and PIPV Capital senior managing partner Osagie Imasogie, all of whom were involved in the Philly Delivers marketing campaign and application process during the fall of 2017. Some of them even made cameos in the Philly Delivers videos or had statements on the proposal’s accompanying website.

Interestingly, Campbell Soup sent a representative — vice president and head of digital and e-commerce Shakeel Farooque. As the Camden-based company moves to bolster its e-commerce capacity, having Amazon in the same town could jeopardize its ability to attract the region’s best tech talent, but Amazon’s presence could also trigger new strategic partnerships.

The host committee worked to impress Amazon by also having Rhodes Scholarship recipient Hazim Hardeman present at the dinner. Hardeman is Temple University’s first Rhodes Scholar and likely the dinner’s youngest attendee.

Morgan Lewis & Bockius partner and chair Jami Wintz McKeon, who penned a testimonial for Philadelphia’s application to Amazon, was also an attendee. In the testimonial, McKeon wrote, “As I reflect on how our firm got to where we are today, much of our success can be attributed to Philadelphia’s unique profile.”

Peirce College vice president of Institutional Advancement and Strategic Partnerships Uva Coles, who previously showed no strong ties to Philadelphia’s Amazon bid, was also listed as a guest.

The host committee brought Philadelphia’s tech scene to the table by inviting two of the city’s most well-known tech leaders — ROAR for Good founder and CEO Yasmine Mustafa and SEER Interactive founder and director of strategy Wil Reynolds.

And lastly, perhaps the evening’s most surprising guest was Comcast senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer David L. Cohen. There’s no doubt that Comcast has long advocated for a more business-friendly Philadelphia, but the company has largely remained mum on Amazon. A Philadelphia magazine request for comment from Comcast on Philadelphia’s HQ2 bid was declined last year and preemptively put an end to future inquiries about Amazon.

In Philadelphia’s application materials, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts did write a testimonial, but it was relatively passive. It pointedly celebrated Philadelphia but said nothing about Amazon.

“We have the land, we have the resources, and we have the wherewithal to catapult the city; and it needs a catalyst,” Roberts wrote. “Philadelphia’s ready, and I think Philadelphia will be one of the great cities in the world for the next 200 years.” (Does Roberts perhaps think that Philadelphia’s catalyst is already in Philadelphia?)

While Cohen is listed as a contributor in Philadelphia’s Amazon application, his contribution appears limited to an obligatory signature at the bottom of a letter of support from the Chamber of Commerce, on whose board he sits.

How It All Went Down

Though the host committee planned for an unscripted evening, there was some structure provided, says a source who attended the dinner but asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the committee.

Guests were sent Philadelphia Delivers messaging to use as context when speaking with the Amazon representatives. “Philadelphia is centrally located,” is the first point in a list of six items on the document, which also includes glowing statistics about the city’s talent pool, innovation sector, culture, cost of living, and potential HQ2 sites.

According to the document, Philadelphia is the “Goldilock’s zone for Amazon” since it is “centrally located in the Northeast Corridor, offers a vast talent pool, and has rich cultural life of a big city at a fraction of the cost.” The document also underscores that the city has “plenty of capacity to grow.”

The host team seemed to sharpen the city’s messaging on topics like talent. Instead of just touting that the region has 102 colleges and universities as officials did during the application period, the document states that the region has the “highest number of top-100 universities within 150-mile radius.” And to shine a light on Philly-area schools, the documents says “There are more top-20 public school districts in our region than in any other region in the country.”

The officials who assembled the document also didn’t hold back in comparing Philly to cities like Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The document’s notes on affordability parse out the idea that Amazon would save by settling in Philly. Cost of living is “20% higher in Seattle, 25% higher in Boston, 26% higher in Washington, D.C., 50% higher in San Francisco and 92% higher in New York City” and cost of doing business is on average “33 percent higher in comparable East Coast cities,” it reads.

The memo ends by talking up the sites where Amazon could establish its second home. Philadelphia’s housing market would be “moderately impacted by the 50,000+ HQ2 employees with less than 1%-point increases predicted on rent,” the document says citing “various external studies.”

Over a period of two and a half hours that kicked off at 6:30 p.m., the special guests stood up one-by-one to deliver brief presentations about why they love Philadelphia, according to the source. “Everyone had the mission of trying to get Amazon to Philly. Everyone came together and said great things about the city,” the source said.

An additional document distributed to the local guests lists general “Topics for Dinner,” a list of potential questions that would help attendees prepare for whatever Amazon might throw at them, including: “Do you feel the city and region are welcoming of people of different genders, minorities, sexual preferences or religions? What, if anything, would you change to make Philadelphia an even better city for business Is it easy to attract talent to Philadelphia from other parts of the country?”

A Poker-Faced Amazon

As for Amazon, the team of eight visitors representing the financial, legal, human resources and real estate components of Amazon’s HQ2 effort, were intensely big on secrecy. The list of attendees, for example, includes only the first names of the Amazon representatives — and there’s no way to even confirm whether their first names are actually what was listed on the document.

The source told Philadelphia magazine that the representatives, figuratively, “weren’t saying anything.” They were “impartial” and “very secretive.” The team’s goal was strictly information-gathering.

The Amazon team even had a code name for Philadelphia, the source notes, which may be the case for all other Amazon HQ2 finalist cities. According to one of the documents that seems to corroborate this idea, Amazon’s interactions with Philadelphia and the team that visited the city are coded under moniker “Project Bailey.”

According to the attendee, the visitors didn’t offer any real impressions or next steps. They also did not talk about their experience with the search or visit overall. “Everything happened so fast,” the attendee said.

Philadelphia reached out to a number of the dinner attendees for comment. ROAR for Good CEO Yasmine Mustafa declined to comment on her involvement, saying “We were told to not talk about it. They were very strict about us not sharing.” David L. Cohen declined to comment for this story, and the others did not respond.

Is Philadelphia Still in the Running?

On Tuesday, PIDC spokesperson Jessica Calter declined to comment on whether Amazon has been in contact with Philadelphia in recent months. “We are not commenting on the process so nothing I can say there,” she said in an email.

It’s unclear whether the intimate evening, abetted by Barbuzzo’s popular farm-fresh menu offerings, was enough to hook Amazon and keep Philadelphia in the running. After all, not receiving a second visit could just mean that the team collected all the necessary information the first time around. But the dinner and the quest to keep it secret — in line with Amazon’s freakishly clandestine example — show just how far the city is willing to go to court the tech giant.