Gehrke: Utah’s courtship of Amazon, potentially worth billions, is happening completely in the dark

In the Amazon rainforest, parrots will puff up their feathers, strut side to side and make a squawking sound in an effort to attract a mate.

In the world of Amazon (the company) the courtship to host its second global headquarters lacks that kind of subtlety.

Take Stonecrest, Ga., which reportedly offered to change its name to Amazon and make company CEO Jeff Bezos the mayor if it lands the headquarters.

Officials in Birmingham, Ala., placed giant Amazon delivery boxes around the city to kick off its campaign. If it went anything like my Amazon orders, most of the packages were likely stolen off the porch.

And Tucson, Ariz., — for some reason — thought it would be a good idea to send the company a 21-foot saguaro cactus, which Amazon returned, explaining that it cannot accept gifts from cities making a bid and, well, would you want a 21-foot tall cactus?

New Jersey, being New Jersey, was more direct, offering an estimated $7 billion in tax credits, while Memphis, Tenn., put $60 million in cash on the table.

In Utah, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development sent Amazon it’s bid Tuesday, offering the online retailer … who knows?

GOED won’t disclose any details. It won’t even say where it is proposing to locate the sprawling campus.

Officials in Salt Lake County and prospective cities were required to sign non-disclosure agreements and any documents relating to the state’s wooing have to remain secret.

“Amazon has chosen to make [the competition] public, but we look at it as any other recruiting project and we don’t talk publicly about the details of those efforts,” GOED Director Val Hale said in an interview Thursday.

It makes sense that Utah wants to be in the game. Amazon has promised $5 billion in construction spending alone, and, once built, 50,000 jobs. If Fate and Bezos smile on Utah, it would make Amazon the largest employer in the state, roughly the size of the next two, the University of Utah and Intermountain Healthcare, combined.

“[It’s] absolutely, if not the biggest, one of the biggest economic development projects in the history of our country,” Hale said. “It’s that big, and that’s why the numbers are so massive and the publicity has gotten so big and I think that’s why so many communities are interested in it.”

Here’s the problem: Based on some back-of-the-napkin math, the state could offer up as much as $1.5 billion in incentives — legally the state can offer up to 30 percent of the roughly $100,000 compensation for each of the 50,000 jobs — in the form of tax breaks and potentially tens of millions more in property tax breaks and other sweeteners.

But taxpayers get no sense of the offer even though if the state prevails residents could see traffic explode, home prices and rents skyrocket, additional strain put on utilities and schools and police and fire and other services.

It’s troubling that the only thing the state learned from the (thankfully) failed attempt last year to give more than $200 million to Facebook to essentially build a giant computer server warehouse in West Jordan is that things need to be more secretive.

Hale said he anticipates that once Amazon narrows the field the company might make more details about the bids available and then there will be more scrutiny and public input.

House Speaker Greg Hughes said he met with Hale and there are three areas in the state that fit Amazon’s needs. One of them is the state prison property in Hughes’ Draper district, since the state is building a new correctional facility out near the airport.

“The prison property, I think, is most intriguing because it’s a huge swath of land — [nearly] 700 acres — and it’s currently owned by the state,” Hughes said. That gives the state flexibility in tailoring the use of the land to meet Amazon’s needs, without having to negotiate with the city or county.

Draper Mayor Troy Walker is one of the officials who signed a non-disclosure agreement, so he can’t talk about any state bid, but he says something like an Amazon headquarters would be “the ideal kind of use” for the prison property.

“You know me, that’s exactly what I’d want here,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing I’ve envisioned for the property and what I’ve been talking about for a long time.”

In 2014, Draper put together renderings of its vision for the prison property, and it included 9 million square feet of office space — right in line with the 8 million square-foot headquarters Amazon envisions once it’s fully built out, which may be as many as 17 years.

All of this said, Utah is probably a long shot. Moody’s Analytics, the business research group, ranked all of the contenders based on the criteria that Amazon specified and Austin, Texas, finished on top, followed by Atlanta and Philadelphia.

The Salt Lake area finished 10th, losing points for geography — the thinking being that Salt Lake is too close to Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. It also took a hit because of Utah’s comparative lack of a skilled work force — too few graduates with degrees in relevant fields from elite universities.

Hale said Utah won’t be offering the type of financial incentives other suitors are, but he believes the state fares well in quality of life and other factors.

“We’ve thought that it would be a bit of a long shot for Utah to get there, but we believe that if Amazon were to put us on the short list and actually come out to Utah to take a look, our chances would increase significantly,” Hale said.

Also, following Tuscon’s lead, it might not hurt to send them a 60-square-foot Jell-O casserole.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.