Meet the gatekeepers to South Florida’s Amazon HQ2 bid

By: Ina Cordle
February 2018

Amazon’s search for a second headquarters may be shrouded in secrecy. But in South Florida, three power brokers have a direct line to the e-commerce giant as they make their pitch to host HQ2.

Mike Finney, president and CEO of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council; Bob Swindell, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance; and Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, are the gatekeepers for the regional proposal. They — not the elected officials, developers or real estate agents — are the ones who deal directly with Amazon in the battle for the grand prize: the $5 billion second headquarters complex.

Combined, the three players have decades of experience luring companies and helping them expand in South Florida. Their focus now is on Amazon, after the tech giant announced last month it had whittled down 238 proposals to a shortlist of 20 cities, including Miami. Observers say the city remains a long shot, with locations like Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas, Nashville, Tennessee, Montgomery County, Maryland; and Northern Virginia as prime candidates. But South Florida officials say their submission is still very much in the mix.

Amazon has touted big numbers for HQ2: 500,000 square feet of office space by 2019, and about 8 million square feet of space by its planned completion in 2027. The campus will create 50,000 new jobs in the chosen location, the company said. But it went dark after naming the finalists, and didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. Finney, Swindell and Smallridge were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements to keep details confidential.

Yet there are morsels of information that indicate Amazon continues to pare down the list from Miami’s initial regional proposal, which included eight sites. There were five sites in Miami-Dade, two in Broward County and one in Palm Beach County. That has now been scaled back to “a lesser number based on feedback from the client,” Finney said. He declined to specify how many prospective sites remain. In Miami-Dade, the original locations included three in and around Overtown, including the Miami Worldcenter site, as well as Downtown Doral in Doral.

Finney, Swindell and Smallridge say they have not been told of Amazon’s planned timeline. But if you’re hoping to be Amazon’s developer or broker, here’s what you should know about them.

Mike Finney, Miami-Dade Beacon Council

Finney serves as Amazon’s main point of contact, the “quarterback” driving Miami’s tri-county proposal, Swindell said.

Finney’s role has been to ensure that South Florida is ready to respond to requests for proposals, serve as a conduit and lead the process as it moves forward.

“It’s fair to say this is a top priority for us,” he said. “It would be an understatement to say we have put a lot of time into it.”

The project includes work by the Beacon Council’s business development, marketing and research departments and there are dozens more who have contributed to the submission, including county and city politicians and staffers, developers and educational leaders.

Finney, 61 has headed the Beacon Council for seven months, after moving from the Midwest. Previously, he was senior advisor for economic growth in Michigan and president and CEO of the state’s Economic Development Corporation. A commercial aimed at wooing tourists to the state, called “Pure Michigan,” was created under his watch. Before that, he was an economic development leader in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Rochester, New York.

Amazon’s second headquarters represents the biggest deal Finney has worked on because of its potential for job creation. But other projects in Michigan involved more economic investment, land or square footage, including various research, assembly and components plants for General Motors, Ford and Fiat/Chrysler. He also helped lure Toyota to a 700-acre research campus, did the same with Google AdWords for an office campus and got Clements Food Group to occupy a pork processing facility.

Kelly Smallridge, Business Development Board of Palm Beach County

As the head of Palm Beach County’s economic development agency, Smallridge has

kept local officials updated on the Amazon proposal.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything as large as this,” said Smallridge, who joined the Business Development Board in 1988. “This is a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity, and very few projects are this transformational.”

In choosing the county’s proposed site, Smallridge used the organization’s three real estate databases. “Whatever we don’t have, developers make sure we know about their properties,” she said, “So nothing was left out.”

Smallridge, 51 plays up the regional aspect of the proposal. “When you look at a project of this magnitude, there is no way one county can accommodate [it],” she said. “Wherever Amazon would go, every county would benefit.”

She cites Brightline, All Aboard’s new high-speed commuter rail that will eventually link Orlando to Miami, as key to the proposal, because it will open South Florida’s workforce to job opportunities across county lines.

Florida’s lack of a state tax, a population that is 53 percent bilingual, with 375,000 college students, as well as the quality of life, beaches and culture also are all pluses in winning the bid, Smallridge said.

“I think we absolutely have a good shot,” she said.

Smallridge led business recruitment, retention and expansion efforts before becoming president in 2004. She helped bring in two of the world’s largest bioscience organizations to the state: the Scripps Research Institute, from San Diego, and the Max Planck Society, from Germany.

Bob Swindell, Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance

For Swindell, joining forces with the other county development agencies was a no-brainer.

“All three of us thought we would have the strongest proposal if we worked together,” he said, citing the combined area’s 6 million residents, 3.1 million-member workforce, four research universities and three international airports.

Swindell, 56, has headed Broward County’s economic development arm since 2009, after joining in 2003. Before that, he had his own manufacturing business for 20 years. His experience is deeply rooted in real estate as a property owner and evaluator.

At the e-commerce giant, Swindell said the initial work is being handled by a site selection team of real estate professionals who “know what they are looking for.” “There’s no company in the world that has access to more data than Amazon,” he added.

So far, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has had no direct involvement with the South Florida group, Swindell said. But, he added, the team is ready to convince Bezos, a 1982 graduate of Miami Palmetto Senior High School, that his former hometown is the right choice for Amazon’s HQ2.

“We’re using every means at our disposal,” he said.

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