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A ferry ploughs through ice on the Hudson River near Manhattan on Jan. 11. Two of the cities among Amazon’s 20 finalists for where to open a second headquarters are in the New York area – the city itself and Newark, N.J, which is just across the river.

Kathy Willens/AP

Sorry, Detroit. Tough luck, Baltimore. Maybe next time, Montreal.

The list of 20 finalists is out for what one commentator dubbed "the Olympics of corporate relocation," and certain large U.S. cities have an edge in the race to claim the ultimate prize of hosting Amazon.com Inc.'s second headquarters.

More than 200 cities submitted proposals, but the finalists are tilted toward major metropolises in the Eastern United States with transit hubs and deep pools of talent: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta all made the cut. So too did Toronto, but it faces a tough road ahead.

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In the months since Amazon announced its search, a cottage industry has emerged to handicap the odds of success for each city based on the company's stated criteria. On Thursday, experts had their first chance to compare their guesses with Amazon's picks – and found many areas of agreement.

"The ones that we thought had the greatest chance are all on the list," said Eric Simonson, a managing partner at Everest Group, a consulting and research firm, pointing to finalists such as Atlanta, Boston and Chicago.

Amazon expects to invest $5-billion (U.S.) in its second home and plans to hire 50,000 people, a number that is "really, really, really big," Mr. Simonson said. Some of the cities on the list of 20 are simply "too small if [Amazon] is serious" about such recruitment, he said.

Research by Everest suggests that a realistic minimum population for a metropolitan area to accommodate that kind of hiring is four million, which would exclude some of the finalists, including Columbus, Indianapolis, Nashville and even Denver.

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Mr. Simonson's money is on Atlanta, which has both the population and transportation infrastructure to accommodate Amazon's ambitions. He said he was pleased to see Toronto on the list, but felt it offered both advantages and disadvantages: Canada's immigration system is a plus, but Amazon also has "a history of trying to push pretty hard for less regulation and less tax, so Canada would tend to be less attractive on that front."

Politics may also work against Toronto's bid. "When it comes to Canada, there's no way to make a purely business decision if you're Amazon," said Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York. U.S. President Donald Trump would not hesitate to criticize such a choice, Mr. Renn said, while his opponents could paint the decision as a consequence of the administration's policies.

"If I were a CEO, I'd be thinking, 'Do I really want to take this pie in the face?'" Mr. Renn said.

Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, is already a target of Mr. Trump's ire thanks to his ownership of The Washington Post, which Mr. Trump has repeatedly referred to on Twitter as the "Amazon Washington Post."

Mr. Renn's top contender is Chicago, which offers lower costs than such a place as New York and a huge pipeline of entry-level talent. But he noted that the sheer variety of cities on Amazon's list of finalists – in size, geography and orientation toward technology – seems intended to obscure the company's ultimate aims. "They've really picked a list designed to keep you guessing," he said.

Upon closer inspection, the list of 20 is more like a list of 17. Three of the finalists are in the Washington area – Washington itself, Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Md. Two others can be described as part of a New York bid – New York and Newark, N.J., which sits just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Los Angeles is the sole contender on the West coast, which makes it an unlikely choice owing to its proximity to Amazon's existing headquarters in Seattle.

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The cities did not appear to have any advance warning of the announcement. Lauren Cox headed to work on Thursday in Philadelphia expecting a normal day. That went out the window at about 9 a.m. Her phone buzzed with a text message from her boss, who is managing the city's bid for the new headquarters: Philadelphia was a finalist.

There followed "lots of versions of 'Heck yeah!' with lots of exclamation points," said Ms. Cox, a spokesperson for the city. "It's an exciting day." The e-mail the city received from Amazon said the company looked forward to discussing the next steps in the process, but did not specify what those steps would be.

Some cities had crafted significant incentives to sweeten the deal. Newark, for instance, put together a package of tax breaks worth $7-billion. Other cities such as Boston and Toronto declined to offer such enticements.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said that in general he is opposed to the idea of cities using sweeteners to attract employers, but he might make an exception in Amazon's case. "I'd work hard to get 50,000 employees and $50-billion in investment from a company that is world-class and going places," he said.

Last fall, Moody's analyzed the potential contenders and ranked Austin, Atlanta and Philadelphia as the top three based on Amazon's stated preferences. Mr. Zandi said he was surprised to see three finalists clustered in the Washington area, which "makes it feel like it's the front-runner here."

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