After a fierce contest between 238 locations, Amazon chose Arlington in northern Virginia for its second headquarters (HQ2) in 2018. Victor Hoskins, Arlington’s then-chief of economic development, was a driving force behind the city winning over the firm. Mr Hoskins, who now plays the same role for nearby Fairfax County, explains how he secured Amazon’s $2.5bn investment deal and the importance of the tech talent pipeline.

Q: What laid the groundwork for Arlington’s bid for Amazon’s HQ2? 

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A: We figured out our approach after landing Lidl’s US corporate headquarters in 2015 and Nestlé’s in 2017. We learned that companies were talking about talent very differently to before, so we got the deans of all the business schools interested in these opportunities into a room. That’s when we realised the powerhouse of talent we have coming out of our schools. 

Obviously, talent wasn’t the only factor. It’s also location, leases, accessibility, transport and so on. We’d already looked at these pieces separately and Amazon brought them all together. 

Q: How did you secure the mega project?

A: In addition to Arlington, three nearby locations also applied: Loudoun, Fairfax and Alexandria. We focused on our respective sites, but we worked together on the application, pooled our money with the state’s, hired consultants and sold the entire DC, Maryland and Virginia region.

That gave us a great opportunity to talk to the state about how to attract companies today versus three years prior. The governor and legislature ran with that and committed enough money to double the number of technical engineers graduating in Virginia by 2039. Ramping up the tech talent pipeline became a crucial piece of the state’s commitments. That’s how we’ve ended up with two new tech campuses: Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus is in Alexandria, about two miles from HQ2, and George Mason University’s, three miles away. 

We agreed with the governor’s office and local elected officials that we weren’t going to buy the deal by offering Amazon a bunch of money to come here. The objective was solving Amazon’s problem, which was a growing need for talent. What I tell investors is, these days, talent is the new currency of growth.

Q: Was there local community pushback and how did you address this? 

A: It was primarily around affordable housing. We dealt with it straight on by convincing the state to put more resources behind it. The developer of Amazon’s site, JBG Smith, also launched a non-profit called the Washington Housing Initiative to raise $400m for affordable housing and before the deal was done, Amazon committed to help too. After choosing Arlington they announced a $2bn equity fund to build housing in its biggest locations. 

Q: Has Amazon’s arrival had a cluster effect in northern Virginia? 

A: In Fairfax we’ve seen some substantial follow on. In 2019, Facebook opened offices, Google and Amazon Web Services have expanded, and last year Microsoft announced a regional research and development hub which will create 1500 jobs. Plus, a lot of cybersecurity, drone and autonomous vehicle companies have moved in and are gathering within 5–8 miles of Amazon’s location. 

Q: Must economic development organisations foster inclusive talent and what is Fairfax County doing? 

A: This is core as a lot of companies don’t traditionally have the mechanisms to reach out to underrepresented groups like we do. Over the past year we’ve held five virtual career fairs, including one focused on women in coding, for which we partnered with seven historically black colleges. We’ve also reached out to the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and agencies that help veterans transition. Many veterans already have the security clearances required for government-related work, which make up about 25% of jobs in our region. 

Victor Hoskins is chief executive and president of Fairfax County Economic Development Authority

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