HARRISBURG — In the middle of one of the busiest legislative workdays in the Capitol this week, a group of state senators — including the chamber’s ranking Republican and Democrat — wrote Gov. Wolf letters with a not-so-subtle message: Pick Pittsburgh.
Allegheny County’s top executive has already reached out to the governor, too.
As Philadelphia sizes up a coast-to-coast list of cities competing to land Amazon’s new headquarters, one of its fiercest rivals might be the in-state neighbor a few hundred miles to the west. The cities tangle over everything from who has the best sports teams to the relative merits of their respective gut-blasting sandwiches, and seem destined to collide over one of the nation’s biggest economic development prizes in years.
And if Amazon decides only one Pennsylvania town makes its short, short list, Pittsburgh is not going down without a fight.
“Western Pennsylvania offers many `quality-of-life’ enticements that would be attractive
to corporate leaders and staff, a fact that regularly places the region on the top of `best places to
live’ lists,” one letter to Wolf declared, signed by 12 senators including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson).
Scarnati, whose hometown is not terribly close to Pittsburgh, only happens to be the third ranking state official in Pennsylvania.
Politics will not technically be a factor in the two cities’ expected bids for Amazon’s second headquarters, which dangles the promise of 50,000 high-paying jobs and billions in investments. But it is part of the equation in Harrisburg, as both cities — and possibly other areas in the state — vie for Wolf’s blessing as they attempt to land the coveted prize.
For his part, Wolf, a Democrat, is trying to be Switzerland.
“I’m the governor of Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in an interview Wednesday with the Inquirer and Post-Gazette. “We certainly don’t want to get into trying to play favorites within the Pennsylvania family.”
Wolf said his priority is to lure the corporate giant to the state, which he said is home to “two world-class cities.” He said he read about Amazon’s search for a new city late last week, and by Saturday was already schmoozing a top Amazon executive at the Pitt-Penn State football game in State College.
He also sent a handwritten note to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Wolf and his secretary of Community and Economic Development, Dennis Davin, said the state is willing to help both cities — and any others who decide to compete — by offering them the same help. Though the state is staying mum on specifics, that help can range from public dollars for workforce development, infrastructure improvements, and tax incentives.
State assistance isn’t unprecedented. The state, under former Gov. Tom Corbett, offered $1.6 billion in tax incentives to Shell to build its $6 billion cracker plant in Beaver County.
Corbett, a Republican, also committed up to $30 million in grants and $4.5 million in job creation tax credits to support Comcast’s $1.2 billion tower in Philadelphia.
Wolf, who is up for reelection next year, would say only that helping the state land Amazon is a priority.
It’s also a priority for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
In an interview earlier this week, Fitzgerald said he had already reached out to Wolf and Davin and has begun coordinating with Pittsburgh officials, local universities and foundations, and others.
“We’ve been moving already,” he said, adding: “It’s what we do well. It’s one of the things Pittsburgh’s really good at — working together, being cooperative.”
He pitched the city as a nerve center for technological innovation that would attract millennials. He noted the city is home to Carnegie Mellon University, which also happens to be the alma mater of Brian Olsavsky, Amazon’s CFO, who got his MBA there. Olsavsky went to Penn State for his undergraduate degree, which gave Wolf the opportunity to lobby him last Saturday in Beaver Stadium.
Philadelphia officials also have wasted no time chest-thumping. The day Amazon announced it was looking for a host city, Mayor Kenney tweeted: “We think Philadelphia would be a PRIME location for Amazon that would make people SMILE!”
City officials, too, have been huddling with their educational, cultural, and other institutions to author a winning bid.
Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said the city already has a large and talented millennial pool, the ability to form partnerships within the community, and a relatively cheap cost of living compared to other cities on the eastern seaboard.
“Like the Amazon model, we are consumer-focused, not competition-focused,” she said.
Still, when it comes to clout in Harrisburg, Philadelphia lags behind Pittsburgh. The House’s speaker, Mike Turzai, is from the Pittsburgh suburbs. That chamber’s top Democrats hail from there too. The Senate’s top Democrat, Jay Costa, also lives there.
But political muscle will only take you so far, said Sen. Vince Hughes (D., Philadelphia).
“If the fundamentals aren’t there, it doesn’t work,” said Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Pittsburgh, he said, is a fine city. But Philadelphia, a transportation hub between New York and Washington with a cluster of higher-learning institutions and a tech corridor, dwarfs it in the factors that count.
“Who’s got the better fundamentals? It’s not even a conversation,” he said.
Back in the day, he said, when someone was looking for a place to put a steel mill, they went to Pittsburgh.
He views the competition for Amazon the same way — but this time, the scale is tipped in Philadelphia’s favor.
“If you don’t have the fundamentals, what are you arguing for?” he said.
Post-Gazette staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed to this article.