Would a Binational Detroit-Windsor Amazon HQ2 Bid Be a Game-Changer?

Just about all of North America has been abuzz over Amazon’s search for a second headquarters. Dubbed HQ2, the project is expected to bring billions in investment capital to the winner, along with up to 50,000 jobs.

Like virtually every major city in America, Detroit is planning to toss its hat into the ring. But unlike most American cities, Detroit has a unique proposal: A Canadian partner. Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans, is leading the Motor City’s submission process. According to the Detroit Free Press, Gilbert told reporters at a press conference this week that Detroit is currently “in talks” with Windsor, ON, to submit a binational bid.

“What we look for (is) ‘What are the assets that Detroit has—and we have many of them—that no city is going to be able to compete against?'” he said.

Is this just a neat marketing gimmick, or would a Detroit-Windsor submission be a “game-changer,” as the Windsor Star declared? More from the Star:

“Hearing last week that Detroit was putting in a bid, [Windsor mayor Drew] Dilkens said he e-mailed Gilbert, whose investments have been a significant factor in downtown Detroit’s economic rebirth. … ‘It would be hard to ignore our bid,’ Dilkens said. ‘It could be something no one else can offer.’”

And just what does the region have to offer? Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner, and the Detroit-Windsor border crossing was characterized by the Brookings Institution as “easily the most important of these trade depots.” It’s the busiest border crossing between the U.S. and Canada, and second-busiest in North America, second only to Laredo, TX. Here’s more from Brookings: “Detroit funnels approximately $131 billion, or nearly half, of all goods that move by truck between the U.S. and Canada. By comparison, the next highest border crossing, Buffalo, transports about one-third this value by truck ($51 billion).” Maybe it’ll have a drone delivery fleet one day, but until then, Amazon still relies on trucks to move much of its merchandise.

In its request for proposals, Amazon said it wanted to locate in a city with at least a million people that also has good transportation, access to talent, and strong schools. While Detroit’s public transit is lacking and the state’s roads are in desperate need of repair, Canada doesn’t have those issues. The universities in Southeast Michigan, including the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, reliably bolster the local workforce, but also having access to cross-border talent could help ease the immigration uncertainties that are especially prevalent in the tech industry.

Access to Canadian talent has been a key factor in Microsoft’s push for a cross-border Cascadia Innovation Corridor, linking Seattle and Vancouver. At a conference last week, several new initiatives were launched to more closely knit together researchers, innovators, and investors in the two regions.

A Detroit-Windsor HQ2 would also be located right in the middle of the nation’s automotive ecosystem, which means it has a strong manufacturing presence, close proximity to many of the industry’s decision-makers and thought leaders, and access to the largest pool of engineering talent in the country. That might be an extra incentive to a company that is also exploring autonomous vehicle development as well as assorted other mobility technologies.

Finally, there is a ton of vacant real estate in Detroit, especially if Amazon is willing to build its HQ2 outside of the immediate downtown area. A few years ago, Data Driven Detroit estimated that the city has roughly 20 square miles of vacant land, including about a square mile of empty industrial sites.

Then, there are the intangibles. Detroit is cool in an authentic, anti-try-hard way. The city is a symbol of American ingenuity and economic strength that had almost hit bottom before a feverish downtown revitalization effort kicked off earlier this decade; helping to restore some of that Detroit pride could go a long way toward boosting the country’s morale.

And despite the popular narrative, Detroit is brimming with diversity. Take a stroll down the Riverfront some afternoon—you’ll see hijab-wearing young women picnicking next to a pack of tech bros as African American families play beach volleyball and young professional types zip by on rollerblades. It might sound cheesy, but you’ll see the full breadth of humanity in all its multi-hued glory on display, having fun and enjoying the sunshine. Plus, the food in Detroit is fantastic. The city is also packed with amazing dive bars. And the music!

Gilbert, for one, is optimistic. “I think Detroit is a legit contender to win over Amazon,” he told reporters this week. “We have a legitimate shot.” Gilbert told the Free Press he has 30 or 40 people working on the bid non-stop in a “war room.” If that sounds far-fetched, consider that Gilbert has already almost single-handedly remade Detroit’s downtown, transforming derelict skyscrapers and creating jobs in the process.

Amazon already has a decent footprint in Michigan. Last week, the company announced it was moving forward with plans for a 1 million-square-foot warehouse in Shelby Township, which is expected to generate as many as 1,000 jobs. Another 1-million-square-foot fulfillment center is slated to open in Livonia this fall, creating up to 1,500 jobs. The company also has a small center in Brownstown, with similar facilities planned for Hazel Park and Romulus.

The deadline to submit HQ2 bids is Oct. 19.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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