By Matt Day

Amazon on Thursday narrowed the field in its search for a second headquarters city, plucking 20 finalists from among the 238 proposals the retail giant received in October.

The list included several cities widely seen as favorites, including Atlanta, Austin, Texas, and Boston.

Also included in Amazon's shortlist were dark horse candidates including Nashville and Montgomery County, Maryland.

In a news release disclosing the list, Amazon didn't outline its rationale behind its selections.

The company has said it plans to make a final decision on its so-called HQ2 sometime this year, and could occupy the first portion of a new campus as soon as 2019.

Amazon surprised the world, and its hometown of Seattle, in September when it announced it was looking for a second headquarters city somewhere in North America, which Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said would be a "full equal" to its massive existing campus. The online retail giant said it could spend $5 billion, and hire as many as 50,000 employees, at the new campus over an up to 17-year build out.

Many observers viewed Amazon's search as a sign that the company's ambitions had outgrown Seattle, and would most likely seek a different labor force outside the Pacific Northwest. But a handful of municipalities in the area, including Tacoma, Spokane, Portland, and a consortium of King and Snohomish County cities, raised their hands anyway. None made it through the first round of cuts; Los Angeles is the only West Coast representative.

The 20 finalists are Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Boston; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Denver; Indianapolis; Los Angeles; Miami; Montgomery County, Maryland; Nashville; Newark; New York; Northern Virginia; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Raleigh, North Carolina; Toronto; and Washington, D.C.

The initial announcement of the HQ2 search set off a frenzy among elected officials and corporate recruitment shops across the continent, with dozens of municipalities immediately announcing their interest. Some would jockey for position with gifts, publicity stunts and earnest appeals on how unique their home was.

The company's public wish list for its second home included proximity to a population center of more than one million people, a nearby international airport, access to mass transit, and a business-friendly environment and tax structure.

A request for tax breaks or other incentives, detailed in the company's request for proposals, spurred criticism from watchdog and labor groups critical of what they see as unnecessary giveaways of public money to private corporations. Newark, N.J., appeared to set the high water mark among those who have disclosed their offers to Amazon, promising $7 billion in state and local tax credits.

Many cities that decided to apply didn't meet Amazon's criteria. The company didn't appear to discourage anyone from bidding, however. Representatives of several cities that approached Amazon said the company's message was to submit a bid, regardless of their assessment of their own odds.

Inside Amazon's South Lake Union campus, meanwhile, some whiteboards in common spaces became office pools on the outcome, and included at least a few pleas ("Anywhere but Phoenix," opined one Amazonian whose wish was granted on Thursday).

Bids were due Oct. 19, and subsequently stacked up in the company's headquarters building. A team of Amazon employees representing business units and corporate functions, such as legal and human resources, got to work compiling data to help evaluate the bids.

Meanwhile, the company has continued to grow in Seattle. Amazon is Seattle's largest employer, with more than 40,000 employees.

Amazon's pace of hiring in its hometown appears to have slowed substantially from the heights of recent years, with scattered talk of hiring freezes and budget cuts, but the company continues to scoop up office space around town.

The 238 bids for Amazon's headquarters came from 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, as well as cities in seven Canadian provinces and three Mexican states.

(c)2018 The Seattle Times