SAN FRANCISCO — There were 218 communities whose proposals did not reach the second round in Amazon’s well-publicized search for its second headquarters. For those ambitious but unlucky folks, there were no “thanks for entering” gift baskets or any consolation prizes.
Tom Hall, town manager of Scarborough, Me., had just returned from a meeting about the clam harvest when he heard the bad news from a reporter. He took it philosophically. The town’s proposal to convert a 500-acre harness racing track in the center of Scarborough was, he knew, “the longest of long shots.”
In Oklahoma, there were more regrets.
“I’m certainly disappointed,” said Scott Phillips, who ran a development team called Day 1 that promoted a proposal to build an entirely new 50-square-mile city for Amazon between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, equidistant from each.
“Amazon missed an opportunity to include more out-of-the-box thinking in their list of finalists from proposals like ours,” he added.
For the cities that were not one of Amazon’s 20 finalists, that D-word kept coming up.
Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa, said he was “disappointed” twice in a brief interview, adding that the whole process was “great publicity” for Amazon.
“This news is certainly disappointing,” the team that promoted Buffalo and Rochester said in a statement.
“Very disappointed,” said the Bay Area Council, which had submitted a bid on behalf of San Francisco and four neighboring cities.
Amazon’s obsessive desire to please its customers has created a fearsome retail juggernaut and made its founder, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. This sense of disappointment in the company, however transient it may prove, is something new.
Yet it was perhaps inevitable after the way Amazon turned its search for a second headquarters, which it announced in a blaze of publicity in September, into such a beauty contest. Even with unemployment low, the stock market booming and the economy chugging along, the prospect of landing as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs from Amazon aroused the excitement of politicians everywhere.
“When they rolled this idea out, the narrow description they used really only defined about 30 cities,” said Mr. Phillips of Day 1, referring to how Amazon had said it was looking for a metropolitan area in North America with at least a million people, among other criteria. “Maybe they truly thought only 30 cities would apply. The fact that 238 did probably caught them off-guard.”
Scarborough, for instance, was probably not on Amazon’s radar. It is on the Northeast coast, just south of Portland, population about 20,000. The simplicity of the application process, which involved answering nine questions, providing data and touting the city, “encouraged us and several hundred others who did not have a viable chance to make the strongest possible argument why it should be us,” said Mr. Hall, the town manager. “There’s value in thinking and articulating that.”
Another factor at play: the sense that Amazon was determined to achieve dominance, so why not join up?
“This new headquarters is merely a stop on their road to global conquest,” Mr. Hall said. He noted that so many people in Scarborough received goodies from Amazon during the holidays that even now, in the third week of January, the local recycling center was overwhelmed with cardboard packaging.
Mr. Hall said he had received “no word whatsoever” from Amazon about the fate of his application. An Amazon spokesman said, “All the cities received direct communication from Amazon, including many personal phone calls.”
Many of the other also-rans did not want to talk.
Jason Lary, the mayor of Stonecrest, Ga., who had offered to create a town named Amazon and make Mr. Bezos “the mayor, C.E.O., king, whatever they want to call it,” did not return calls. A spokeswoman for Tucson, which had also applied, said, “We are in an all-day off-site meeting,” adding that she could not be interviewed.
The letdown followed a rush of antics by cities across North America to entice the retailer with tax breaks and publicity stunts.
Business leaders in Tucson had tried to mail Amazon a 21-foot cactus, which the company declined. The mayor of Washington posted a video of herself asking her Amazon Alexa where the headquarters should go. (The answer was of course Washington.) Business school students in Philadelphia had a new homework assignment: Write to Amazon asking it to come. Mayors flew out to Seattle to wander the corporate campus.
The biggest winner in all this, of course, was Amazon. The search has led to feel-good stories in local papers around the country, a coup for Amazon’s public relations machine when many are wary of Mr. Bezos’ growing wealth and power.
For Art Rolnick, an economist at the University of Minnesota, the selection process — which will continue for months — is “reality show” theatrics and should not be celebrated, he said.
Amazon, he said, “wants to get the highest bid and highest subsidy possible, so now the 20 finalist cities will go revise their bids.”
“From a local point of view, it looks like job creation in your community,” Mr. Rolnick added. “From a national perspective, it makes no sense.”
Some elected officials said the reality-show spectacle was an improvement on the way business is usually done.
“It was like ‘The Apprentice,’” the show about hiring and firing that President Trump starred in, said Tulsa’s mayor, G. T. Bynum. “I loved the process. Amazon, to their credit, made it a public and transparent one. Nine out of 10 times, when we have corporate relocation interest, we have to sign so many nondisclosure agreements we don’t even know what company is interested.”
Not all the applicants felt the process was transparent. Amazon released the total number of proposals but not where they were from, which caused some latter-day confusion. Mr. Phillips of Day 1 said he had gotten a receipt from Federal Express for delivering his proposal in October and never heard from Amazon after that.
One possibility: the company did not take some applications particularly seriously. An Amazon spokesman declined to clarify this point.
However clumsy the process, Amazon might have unleashed something.
Apple, which has been criticized for doing most of its production in China, announced this week that it would open a new domestic campus. (Apple did not mention a location.) Taking advantage of the new Republican tax plan, which allows a one-time repatriation of cash, Apple signaled it would bring back most of the $252 billion in cash that it held abroad and add 20,000 new jobs in the United States.
“Second headquarters are the thing of the future — the companies are getting too big for a single market,” said Jeff Cheney, the mayor of Frisco, Tex., a city near Dallas that had a losing bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.
Beyond any sense of disappointment among the losers, then, was a feeling of expectation.
“If Amazon is not willing to swing for the fences in Oklahoma and build a city, maybe Alibaba” — the Chinese internet retailer — “is willing,” said Mr. Phillips. His efforts to build a corporate city, he said, will continue.
There is, however, the problem of the name. “Day 1” is a pet expression of Mr. Bezos, symbolizing how his company’s opportunities are always right in front of it.
“We’ll probably look for a better brand,” Mr. Phillips said, and then reconsidered. “If someone wants to take on Amazon, maybe keeping it ‘Day 1’ will offer the added ability to mess with Bezos’ head a little.”