Little Rock city, chamber officials say ‘no’ to Amazon, unveil new economic development campaign

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 2,363 views 

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola

More than a month after starting a supposed courtship to land Amazon Corp.’s $5 billion H2Q headquarters, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and chamber officials told the Seattle-based ecommerce giant “no” during the unveiling of a glitzy, new economic development marketing campaign.

During a standing-room only press conference at the downtown headquarters of the Little Rock Technology Park, Stodola and Little Rock Chamber President and CEO Jay Chesshir announced that the city was opting out of a longshot bid to land the new multibillion-dollar home-away-from-home offices for Amazon that will house 50,000 employees.

Surrounded by dozens of city and chamber officers wearing “Love, Little Rock” t-shirts, Chesshir explained that after Stodola revealed in a Facebook post in early September that Arkansas’ largest city “fits the bill” for the massive super project drawing interest from hundreds of U.S. municipalities, Little Rock city officials decided to go in another direction.

“When we began to look at what their requirements were, we recognized while we didn’t necessarily fit their (criteria), then about all the other companies out there where we do fit the requirements for, and what a great opportunity to tell the world with a brand-new branding campaign actually created over the last nine days …,” Chessir told the crowd.

In explaining the unorthodox approach, Chesshir said the new campaign launch is intended to attract new businesses that are “not Amazon,” by encouraging local residents to become Little Rock ambassadors by sharing their pride online and social media using the #LoveLittleRock hashtag.

Besides the t-shirts and Twitter hashtags, Chesshir said the city will also use “guerilla” marketing techniques to spread the city’s unique anti-Amazon message, including purchasing a full-page ad in Thursday’s edition of The Washington Post with a letter from the mayor that says, “Hey Amazon, it’s not you, it’s us.” The Little Rock Chamber chief executive said those plans also included flying an aerial banner today over Amazon’s mammoth downtown headquarters in Seattle.

“What we hope, and what we’re already seeing in the ad in the paper this morning is that the text, quotes, emails and the tweets, all of those things that we’re after … what we are hearing from around the country and the world – is ‘brilliant.’ What an amazing response to an ad that talks about what a great city Little Rock is,” Chesshir said to loud applause.

The chamber-led marketing campaign also includes an outdoor messaging campaign supported by local businesses that will post the “Love, Little Rock” tagline on its company marquees and donated billboard space, along with similar free messaging at the Bill and Hillary National Airport.

However, not lost on anyone attending the campaign launch was the fact that The Washington Post is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and the fact Mayor Stodola has been a vocal critic of the Arkansas General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation for not supporting a so-called “Amazon tax” that would allow the state’s largest city to capture sales tax revenue from local Internet sales.

Allowing Chesshir to cheerlead the city’s new marketing campaign and promotions, Stodola later explained why he decided not to put the city’s hat in the ring for the massive super project whose deadline ended today.

“Every economic development consultant in the country pulled their hair out, saying ‘what in the world is Amazon doing?’ And every mayor in the entire country also got alerted and excited about the idea of how they were going to compete. We know, and I don’t know many cities, 150 or so, are hocking everything that they own to try suggest to Amazon that they are the place they should locate.”

Last month, Stodola also made the case that Little Rock’s central location and fast-growing knowledge-based talent pool makes the state’s largest metropolitan area (MSA) a strong match for the tech giant’s sizable employee needs.

“Our local and regional talent in software and related fields is strong and getting stronger. Amazon is particularly interested in entrepreneurs who are seizing the opportunity of the digital economy,” Stodola said in a statement, citing the city’s growing tech-oriented downtown hub. “The city has shown leadership in other areas Amazon values including sustainability and a push for ‘smart cities.’”

Despite his quick announcement to compete of the project, at Thursday’s press conference, Stodola admitted that Little Rock fell short of meeting most of the requirements of Amazon’s RFP.

“We (thought) about this ultimately in terms of our desire to compete. And this is what it is ultimately about, competing and letting the rest of the world know what a great place Little Rock is, and that the people who come here truly do love Little Rock …,” the mayor said.

After the press conference, Chesshir and Stodola would not divulge how much the city had spent on the colorful marketing campaign. When quizzed about the cost of the full-page Washington Post ad, which could cost as much as $80,000 according to the newspaper’s ad rate sheet, Chesshir said local chamber officials were able to purchase the page at a slightly cheaper rate.

A rate card from The Washington Post shows that a full page, black & white ad on a weekday would cost around $137,000 and around $192,000 on a Sunday. With color, the weekday cost rises to $1.614 million and the Sunday rate is $1.994 million. A full page black & white ad in just the financial section would be $80,491.76 on a weekday and $110,287.06 on a Sunday.

Chesshir and Stodola said the “Love, Little Rock” campaign launch will be a part of an economic development pitch the city will use in future job recruiting efforts, backed by private funds from the Chamber. Millie Ward, president of Little Rock advertising firm Stone Ward, said her agency has been engaged to lead the city’s new marketing campaign.

Two years ago, a Pulaski County Circuit Judge ordered the cities of North Little Rock and Little Rock to stop making payments to local chambers of commerce because the practice violated the state constitution. During the November 2016 election, Arkansas voters passed a constitutional amendment that allows local municipalities to enter into contracts with local chambers or other private groups to fund economic development projects. Earlier this year, the Little Rock board of directors awarded $300,000 to the local chamber for such efforts.

According to Amazon’s RFP, the Silicon Valley corporate giant has a preference for urban areas with more than one million people, a stable and business-friendly environment; urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent, and communities that “think big and creatively” when considering locations and real estate options.

Other core requirements for Amazon’s “ideal site” include at least 30 buildings with more than 500,000 square feet of office space through 2019, and an additional 8 million square feet of office space through 2027. The H2Q offices must also be located near an international airport and have direct access to mass transit. The Little Rock airport is not an international airport.

Amazon said it plans to make a total investment of $5 billion over the first 15 to 17 years of project, increasing spending in three different phases until the publicly-traded tech giant has acquired up to 8 million square feet of office space to house its corporate campus and surrounding infrastructure. Amazon said the 50,000 new full-time employees it plans to hire will have an average compensation exceeding $100,000 a year.

Besides Little Rock’s anti-Amazon campaign, more than 150 municipalities and states submitted proposals to land the company’s H2Q headquarters. Proposals ranged from a package offered by New Jersey that offers nearly $7 billion in incentives to a bid by the city council of Stonecrest, Ga., that offers to change its name to Amazon, Ga., and give the company 345 acres of free land if the ecommerce company selects the Atlanta suburb for its next headquarters.

Credit ratings and research company Moody’s has ranked Austin as the most likely city to win based on its labor pool, costs of doing business and quality of life, among other criteria. Amazon is the fastest e-commerce company in U.S. history to reach $100 billion in net sales, topping out at nearly $136 billion in 2016 at an annual growth of 28% in the past decade.