STATESMAN EXCLUSIVE

Amazon has quietly more than doubled its Austin presence in past year

Company execs also discussed something called ‘Project Rainforest’ with economic development officials, but city and chamber decline to talk about it.

Posted October 4th, 2017

Amazon has more than doubled its Austin workforce in the past year, and indications are that more local growth could be in the works, separate from the e-commerce giant’s splashy purchase of Austin-based Whole Foods Market and its high-profile search for a second corporate headquarters.

The company, which opened an Austin office in 2015, has increased its local footprint from 350 employees last year to more than 900 now, with another 100 positions currently open, Amazon confirmed to the American-Statesman.

Amazon has largely settled on the Domain in North Austin as a hub for its Austin operations. The Seattle-based company occupies about 250,000 square feet of office space in two new buildings at the Domain, a large mixed-used project between MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Burnet Road.

But Austin could have an even bigger place in Amazon’s long-term plans. Documents obtained by the American-Statesman show that local economic development officials communicated with an Amazon executive over the summer to discuss a possible expansion of Amazon’s local operations. The documents were obtained through an open records request made to the city.

The potential expansion — dubbed “Project Rainforest” in emails exchanged between Amazon executives, city of Austin officials and representatives of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce — doesn’t appear to be related to Amazon’s search for a second headquarters outside its Seattle hometown. That quest has set off a national frenzy among cities hoping to lure the huge project.

Amazon announced the headquarters search last month, and it appears Austin officials weren’t aware of it in advance.

Regardless, chamber spokesman Mike Berman declined to comment on Project Rainforest or say whether he knows of any expansion plans for Amazon’s existing Austin office. The chamber often uses code names for economic development projects it is working on.

According to the documents reviewed by the American-Statesman, a local Amazon recruiting manager named Eric Buntin emailed a city of Austin economic development executive in late June to discuss a potential expansion in Austin.

“I am working with our site director, Terry Leeper, to identify our longer-term office location in Austin,” the email from Buntin said.

David Colligan, the city’s manager of global business expansion whom Buntin contacted, told the Statesman that he forwarded the information to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and hasn’t kept track of it since then.

“They were looking at potentially expanding here in Austin, so that’s when I connected them to the chamber,” Colligan said. “If they were looking to expand, I would think that they were looking at expansion in the Domain. (But) I don’t have certainty.”

In a July e-mail regarding the matter, Julia B. Campbell, a city business development program manager, also steered Buntin to the chamber, telling him he could “share your project criteria (including the job types and investment profile) while gaining insight into demographic and commuting trends, geographic subsector trends and other valuable market intelligence.”

Campbell began by commenting that it was “a pleasure to chat with you today about Project Rainforest expansion plans.”

It’s uncertain what, if anything, will come of Project Rainforest. But Amazon’s recent activities in the city don’t appear to have provided Austin representatives with any special access to top company executives when it comes to the search for a second Amazon headquarters location — which Amazon has dubbed its “HQ2.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s office attempted to set up a telephone call with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to discuss the HQ2 project on the day Amazon announced it, but the request was politely rebuffed.

“The mayor would like to reach out regarding the potential of Amazon increasing your presence in Austin with Whole Foods acquisition and the potential development of an additional headquarters,” Adler’s assistant wrote to an Amazon executive Sept. 7. “With so much going on, it seems like a good time for (Adler and Bezos) to connect.”

“Yes, it is exciting times for us at Amazon and for our expansion in Austin,” the executive responded. But she steered Adler’s assistant to Amazon’s HQ2 website and said the mayor could contact the team handling that project with any questions.

The Amazon executive also referenced in her response to Adler’s assistant “our growing Amazon office at the Domain that we recently announced and will be celebrating in upcoming weeks,” although it’s unclear to what she was referring. Amazon declined to comment for this story.

Amazon has said it will spend more than $5 billion to build HQ2, which it describes as its second corporate headquarters. The facility will eventually employ up to 50,000 people in “high-paying jobs” averaging more than $100,000 each in total compensation, the company has said.

Proposals from cities interested in luring the project are due by Oct. 19, and Amazon plans to announce the winning location next year.

Amazon has made clear that economic incentives will be key, saying in its request for proposals that “the initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers.” Incentives the company plans to consider include “land, site preparation, tax credits/exemptions, relocation grants, utility incentives/grants, permitting and fee reductions.”

The new facility is expected to total about 500,000 square feet of office space in 2019 and up to 8 million square feet by 2027. Amazon said it will consider locations where it can use existing buildings or sites that will require new construction.

The city of Austin and chamber of commerce officials are working on a bid and have said they will submit it by the Oct. 19 deadline.

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