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Markham, Ont. launches campaign to woo Amazon

City takes to social media to let it be known it's very much a part of the larger Toronto bid for the e-giant's second North American headquarters
Images of Amazon's Seattle, Washington, campus, in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. (JORDAN STEAD / Amazon)

A city just north of Toronto is looking to set itself apart from the rest of the region as the home for Amazon's second North American headquarters.

Markham, Ont. -- one of 10 Canadian cities that joined with Toronto to bid for the hub -- installed 23 bright orange signs on Monday throughout the city, dubbing it the "possible home of Amazon HQ2." It simultaneously launched a social media campaign and website called #ChooseMarkham.

Amazon employees at one of the company's U.S. campuses. (JORDAN STEAD / Amazon)

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is the lone Canadian candidate to make the shortlist of 20 cities -- whittled down from 238 proposals -- still vying for the multi-billion-dollar headquarters. Markham's campaign signals a shift away from the GTA's passive approach to marketing itself against the American metropolises still in contention, such as Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

"I wanted to inform our business community and our residents that when you hear the Toronto bid, that Markham is very much a part of that," said Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, in a call to the Canadian Press that he made while standing by one of the newly-erected signs that he said were generating honks, but also shock from locals who had no idea Markham was in the running for the headquarters.

"It is no surprise we think we have the best site for Amazon in terms of the criteria we are looking for. It is a bid to capture their attention."

Scarpitti dismissed the idea that Markham's campaign would make the other cities included within the Toronto bid feel slighted because he said he expected all of the municipalities to be pushing for the headquarters and using it as an opportunity to boast about what they have to offer.

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In Markham's case, that's 37,000 jobs in technology and related sectors and 1,500 high-tech companies, including General Motors' new Canadian Technical Centre and massive offices from IBM Canada and Huawei that Scarpitti has been highlighting as part of the city's "Innovation Week." Executives from the company appear in testimonials on the city's Choose Markham website.

If Markham is successful in nabbing Amazon, those numbers would grow because the company has vowed to deliver up to 50,000 high paying jobs and a US$5-billion investment.

"Our initiative here is really reflective of the bold initiatives that Amazon continues to make," Scarpitti said. "They have been bold and we want to be bold and will continue to tell our story because it is a great story to tell."

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He said he felt Markham's tactics were not part of "the race to the bottom" that other cities bidding on locations for Amazon or other big companies have engaged in.

Before falling out of contention, Calgary emblazoned the sidewalks across from Amazon's current Seattle headquarters with messages including, "Hey Amazon. We'd change our name for you. Calmazon? Amagary? Love, Calgary ;)" and hung a 30-metre banner outside saying, "we're not saying we'd fight a bear for you, but we totally would." The same message ran in a full-page ad the city took out in the Seattle Times.

Halifax rolled out a flashy website mirroring Amazon's fonts and buttons to claim that locating a second headquarters in that city would bring Amazon a savings of more than $10 billion over 10 years.

Winnipeg enlisted Blue Bomber football star Obby Khan and Mayor Brian Bowman in a cheeky video with Alexa, while Sault Ste Marie suggested that employees could canoe to work in a bid to attract the tech giant.

Hamilton even put $467,000 of cash behind its pitch, which it said was a 50/50 split between public and private funds.

Markham said its marketing plan had "little to no cost" and most of the work associated with it has been done internally.

While Scarpitti said he hasn't been directly involved in Amazon's follow-up efforts to suss out the city, he said, ``even before they put out their bid they were up here in Markham checking out the sites, finding out about our municipality, so I think they are well aware about what the city of Markham is all about.''

Brent Barr, a branding instructor at Ryerson University, said the success of Markham's campaign is not contingent on winning over Amazon, as he sees the campaign as an attempt by Markham to position itself as an innovation hub.

"What they are trying to say to businesses in general is, come to Markham because if Amazon is welcome here, wouldn't everyone be welcome here?" he said. "It is a smart, clever way to drive awareness in this process for them being open for business."

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