Techopia Year in Review: Amazon HQ2 fever grips Ottawa

Amazon

Nothing gripped Ottawa’s tech community this year quite like the prospect of the city becoming Amazon’s second home.

The Seattle-based firm announced a North America-wide competition in the summer to find a host city for its “HQ2,” leaving Ottawa’s tech sector to speculate about if the city would have a shot – and whether winning would even be a good thing.

Amazon’s expectations were steep to begin with. The $5-billion project would need an ecosystem that could fill an extra 50,000 tech jobs, 500,000 sq. ft. of shovel-ready land, a population of minimum one million, an international airport within spitting distance and more.

That’s not even including the courting process involved with convincing Amazon that the city wanted it badly enough. While most observers took the “creativity” requirement in Amazon’s request for proposals to mean generous tax incentives, some applicant cities went to strange lengths to attract the e-commerce juggernaut’s attention.

But the potential economic rewards of hosting one of the world’s biggest firms was too much for Canada’s capital to ignore. Invest Ottawa immediately took up the cause, with support from Mayor Jim Watson, who set up a task force to assemble a bid.

As the competition progressed, seemingly every tech news site in the world put out their lists of the top contenders for HQ2. The majority, it’s fair to say, neglected to include Ottawa. Canadian considerations tended to focus on Toronto or Vancouver, where the tech sectors have the sheer numbers to support a sudden influx of Amazonians.

In response, Invest Ottawa and local observers championed the region as a liveable city with a burgeoning technology scene. The city has far less congestion than Toronto’s major highways, they'd say, and more affordable real estate than Canadian competitors with an underrated local arts culture and lifestyle opportunity for employees.

Some felt the city’s livability might be threatened if it won Amazon’s competition. Pythian CEO Paul Vallée told Techopia’s year-end roundtable that the city’s tech ecosystem “would be broken” if Ottawa won.

“It would break my heart to go through millions and millions of dollars of inducements and tax credits in order to attract a giant into the city that would end up breaking the backs of all of the entrepreneurs here, hundreds of them that are trying to establish themselves,” he said. Vallée’s feelings echoed the concerns of those that felt the competition would be a “race to the bottom.”

The final bid focused on the combined Ottawa-Gatineau region. A 100-plus page “bid book” was shipped off to Seattle, highlighting the cities’ combined tech sector, talent coming out of local post-secondary institutions and a few potential sites for the new Amazon campus.

Amazon bid book
The cover of Ottawa-Gatineau's Amazon HQ2 bid booklet.

A website released shortly afterwards pitched the upcoming Lebreton Flats redevelopment as a chance for Amazon to shape the city. It imagined HQ2 as steps away from coming-soon projects such as the LRT line, a new NHL arena and the Zibi development on Chaudière Island.

The world will find out Amazon’s final choice sometime next year. Whether Ottawa-Gatineau is successful or not, Watson believes the act of putting together a joint bid of this scope was a positive exercise in cross-river collaboration.

“That looks very, very good for future bids,” he said.

If Ottawa is successful, construction on Amazon HQ2 could start as soon as 2019.

If not, well, don’t be too disappointed. We’ve still got a shot at Hyperloop One!