Some lucky cities drew one step closer to hosting Amazon on Thursday, when the e-commerce giant published a list of 20 finalists for its second headquarters. The company announced last September that it would invest as much as $5 billion in the project, which it calls "HQ2," and potentially create 50,000 high-paying tech jobs.

For obvious reasons, cities have been clamoring to get Jeff Bezos's attention, with some going so far as to leave self-promotional reviews on Amazon.com products (Kansas City) and others sending 20-foot gifts of greenery (Tucson). Neither of those two cities made the cut. 

Today's list contains a few surprises, such as Los Angeles and New York, where the cost of living is far higher than it would be in, say, Pittsburgh. That may be intentional, says Jeremy Bodenhamer, founder of logistics firm ShipHawk in Santa Barbara, California, who has been following the HQ2 project closely. The way he sees it, by appearing to consider big metropolitan areas, Amazon could possibly score even more concessions (like tax breaks) from likelier candidates, including Atlanta and Austin.

"Half of this list is completely reasonable, and the other half is absurd," Bodenhamer says. "All that matters to Amazon is the cost of housing and the availability of the workforce. It's a negotiation."

Inc. parsed the publicly available data and spoke with analysts, investors, and entrepreneurs to compile a list of top 5 picks--in order of likelihood--from the list of 20 finalists:

1.  Atlanta

The independent prediction markets, where a number of analysts are looking for guidance on the topic, place the city's odds of being chosen at 3:1--and it's not hard to see why. The Georgia capital is a veritable logistics hub (UPS is already headquartered there) that could help the company as it continues to build out its wildly popular Prime service. Matt McIlwain, the managing director at the Seattle venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group, further suggests that the network of universities, including Emory and Georgia Tech, promises a steady stream of technical talent. "Atlanta has a very can-do, growth-oriented attitude, which aligns with the Amazon culture," he says. 

Atlanta is also home to Delta Air Lines, which has been making a major push into the Seattle market, where Amazon is based. That translates to several daily flights between the two cities.

2.  Philadelphia

It's not surprising that the City of Brotherly Love made the list. In a report released last year, Moody's Analytics ranked Philadelphia as the third-most ideal location for Amazon, given its proximity to Eastern hubs (including New York and Washington, D.C.) as well as an in-built network of talent flowing from schools such as the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel. "The Pennsylvania cities are still realistic," suggests ShipHawk's Bodenhamer, referring to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which also made the cut. 

Still, investors note that Philadelphia--which has billed itself as a "Goldilocks zone" for Amazon--needs to up the ante, besides the considerable tax breaks it has already offered. "The key for the next round is to present something new and unexpected," says Bradley Tusk, a New York City venture capitalist and the founder of Tusk Ventures. "Everyone has put their best foot forward in traditional ways, with tax credits and real estate subsidies. Now it's time for cities to think really big." Tusk nods to how Boston, in particular, has recently invested in becoming a biotech center. Philly, with its proximity to Carnegie Mellon and Uber's Advanced Technologies autonomous vehicle operations in Pittsburgh, could be a hub for artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. 

3. Washington, D.C.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns a huge house in the Washington area, as well as a little newspaper called The Washington Post. Meanwhile, Amazon has several cloud and government services operations in nearby Northern Virginia, including a new East Coast campus for Amazon Web Services--its most profitable branch of business by far. "The greater D.C. area looks really good as one of the contenders," McIlwain notes.

There are other reasons that analysts are bullish on the nation's capital, and why Inc. included D.C. as a top candidate for HQ2 last year. It has a young, eager, and highly educated workforce--with talent stemming from schools including Howard University and Georgetown. Plus, it could behoove the company, which has run afoul of regulation in the past, to be nearer to congressional lawmakers. Although Amazon may not decide to go with D.C. proper, somewhere in the greater Washington area is a likely bet, given that Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland, were also included in the top 20. 

4. Austin

If, as Bodenhamer has argued, the most important factors to Amazon are housing and talent, Austin would be an ideal pick. Texas in general has ample space for building new warehouses and logistics centers, and the ever-hip Austin enclave is likely to be attractive to young, talented engineering graduates. Plus, the city is home to businesses including Whole Foods, which Amazon last year acquired for a stunning $13.7 billion. "Austin is phenomenal because of all the tech that is springing up in the area," suggests Jeff Holzmann, the managing director at iintoo, a New York City-based real estate investment company.

A smaller city is also more appealing than New York or Los Angeles, which Holzmann refers to as "alpha bravo airspaces," where airline traffic is generally high, leading to flight cancellations and delays. On the other hand, he adds, "Amazon would never go where there is no basic infrastructure, with at least a regional airport." 

5.  Nowhere and everywhere

Madrona Ventures' McIlwain says his most provocative opinion is that Amazon doesn't just choose one location but spreads its bets across multiple new campuses in areas including some of the above, as well as larger metropolises such as New York. "It's a hypothesis based on knowing executives at Amazon, and how the company thinks and works," McIlwain says, teasing that he often talks shop--albeit informally--with Amazon staffers at Seattle school plays and sporting events.

Generally speaking, he sees the entire HQ2 project as partially a way of improving relationships with city governments across the country. For many areas, he adds, "There's a lot more hope that there could be a better long-term relationship with Amazon."

To be sure, the company still needs to bet on infrastructure, logistics, and top talent to continue growing across the dozens of businesses it has launched over the past two decades. But if drumming up economic support and attention was indeed the goal to begin with, Amazon has already succeeded.

Published on: Jan 18, 2018