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Halifax's 'dark horse' bid for new Amazon headquarters sparks soul searching

HALIFAX — It started out largely as a cheerleading exercise, a way of touting Halifax's best-kept secrets to show the world we're open for business.
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HALIFAX — It started out largely as a cheerleading exercise, a way of touting Halifax's best-kept secrets to show the world we're open for business.

But Halifax's bid to woo Amazon's new corporate headquarters has morphed into something akin to a municipal mid-life crisis, as the city delves into a round of soul searching on what it really wants out of life.

Amazon, the e-commerce and cloud computing giant, is on the hunt for a location for a second campus in North America, with plans to spend $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs.

Halifax's decision to enter the competition has set off a firestorm of debate about whether the city and its 425,000 residents are ready for the big leagues — or even want to play.

Proponents position themselves as dreamers, portraying Halifax as the little-city-that-could. Halifax may not have all the infrastructure or workforce to accommodate the online retail behemoth now, they say, but if they come, we'll build it.

"Imagine if we never reached for the stars or took a leap of faith," city solicitor John Traves said on Twitter.

Mayor Mike Savage admits the city is a "dark horse," but says Halifax has a shot.

"We've got the lobsters and donairs, fiddles and bagpipes, but that's not a value proposition," he said in an interview. "The value proposition is, we have the skilled labour, the tech sector, the quality of life."

But critics say Amazon could pose an existential threat to what makes the city so appealing, turning Halifax into a congested company town.

Ben Wedge of the Halifax Cycling Coalition pointed out in a column in the daily Chronicle-Herald that Amazon's workforce would require one-in-five of the city's current workers, and nearly a third of the office space.

"Halifax is too small, in the wrong location, and not ready to offer 21st-century transportation options," he argued. "Instead of spending time and money chasing Amazon, the city should focus our efforts on building the kind of city major companies are looking for."

Even some business leaders have questioned the logic of bidding on Amazon's next headquarters.

"Imagine if we put the creativity, money and time of an Amazon (headquarters) bid into something actually achievable for Halifax," Gordon Stevens, who owns Halifax's Uncommon Grounds cafes and other local businesses, said on Twitter.

Still, Savage describes the bid as a capacity-building exercise, a chance to nurture ambition in an East Coast province that has traditionally relied on shipbuilding and fishing but has become Canada’s fifth-biggest tech hub.

"We may be an outlier but we think we've got a shot," he said. "Everything that we're doing as a city is pulling together our capacity to give us a sense of where we are and what we can go for."

Halifax council will have a chance to review the city's bid behind closed doors before it's submitted to Amazon by the Oct. 19 deadline.

Savage said the coalition putting the bid together, including city hall, businesses, universities and local organizations, has identified a possible location for the Amazon campus in Halifax. But he said "we're keeping it all close to our chests" until the deadline has passed.

The mayor dismissed criticisms that Halifax lacks what Amazon needs.

"Wherever Amazon goes people are going to congregate, so they will bring people to Halifax," he said. "But we do have a very high graduating population here ... and the city has been growing faster than it has for a long time."

Indeed, a convergence of factors — booming manufacturing and construction sectors, healthy employment and income gains, strong housing and retail markets, off-the-charts population gains — have made Halifax one of the country’s fastest-growing cities.

Halifax's short commutes, affordable homes, clean air and nearby beaches, as well as universities and colleges, military bases, startups and convenient time zone and geography, are sure to be underscored in the bid.

"When Amazon started, the city of Seattle was just over 500,000 people," he said. "So if they're looking for something similar to Seattle, I think we have it."

And then there's the grunge music connection.

"When Amazon was starting, there was a pipeline between Halifax and Seattle," he said, pointing to the glory days of the 1990s, when the emergence of Sloan and other Halifax bands earned the Nova Scotia capital the title of "Next Seattle."

"We have things that make us unique. We're in it for real," said Savage.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press