Rising Coalition Against Amazon HQ2 Appears In Surprising Places
Amazon may promise jobs and a financial jolt to whichever region wins its HQ2, but there is a rising coalition of opposition. Organizations in several presumed front-runner cities say the project’s presumed benefits will ignore existing, long-term residents and ultimately be more of a headache than a help to their respective local economy.
When Amazon revealed it was scanning North America for a city to host an 8M SF, 50,000-employee second headquarters, experts closely examined perceived front-runners. A steady stream of analytical papers and surveys regarding the bid cities have filled the silent void left by the Seattle-based company as it evaluates where HQ2 might land.
While reports said Boston’s shortcoming would be its prior grass-roots opposition to things like General Electric and the 2024 Olympics compared to business-friendly environments like Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; and Austin, Texas, reality has been far from what think pieces forecast.
“Metro DC DSA is opposing these deals locally because we think the tax dollars should be going to residents that really need it,” Metro DC DSA Chair Margaret McLaughlin said. “We have hundreds of people who sleep in the street every night, and people die to exposure every winter because of that.”
With three berths on Amazon’s shortlist, the D.C. Metro Area is widely perceived as the front-runner in the race for HQ2. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said her city should be the obvious pick for the second headquarters, given its culture fit, tech scene and the fact that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos already has a home in the nation’s capital (and owns the hometown newspaper). But that has not silenced a growing wave of opposition.
The recent launch of websites “Obviously Not D.C.” and “Nova Says No” suggest not everyone in Greater Washington is thrilled by the idea of 50,000 Amazonians in their backyard. Both websites argue Bezos and Amazon do not need whatever unknown amount of financial incentives the region will presumably offer as a lure to win HQ2. Supporters believe the money could be better spent on existing residents and organically building the community.
“On a broader scale, we are opposing an order in which a multinational corporation can ring out as much money from municipalities as they want as they fall over each other to give this company sweetheart deals to win,” McLaughlin said. “Part of our work is to keep Amazon away because it is only going to give a shot in the arm to developers and wealthy homeowners and displace poor working class people of color.”
Incentives Come At A Price
Maryland lawmakers approved a $6.5B tax incentive plan for Amazon Wednesday, which brings the state’s promised HQ2 package to $8.5B, the largest economic development plan in state history as well as the most sizable publicly known offer among the shortlist. Newark, New Jersey, is second with a $7B offer, and the remaining 18 contenders are all believed to be working on their own hefty incentive plans. A Maryland state-funded study claims HQ2 would eventually pump $17B annually into its economy.
Some argue that is not the full story. While the company promises up to 50,000 jobs with an average annual salary of $100K, critics say those jobs will largely depend on tech workers relocating from other parts of the country, and that cash will not flow into the pockets of existing residents. Instead, those people will simply get displaced.
“There will be an increase in tax revenue, which is I believe all the economic development agencies and corporations are thinking with this, but at what expense?” McLaughlin said. “They say there will be more service jobs, but that just sounds like they want black residents and immigrants to be around to pay minimum wage or less than that so they can have their dog walked or laundry cleaned while they work at Amazon.”
D.C. is not the only one. The website “Atlanta Against Amazon” has popped up in recent weeks arguing why the Seattle-based company should skip the Peach State, and McLaughlin said her own coalition was working with a campaign in Austin and had heard of one in its infancy in Philadelphia.
“[As] Atlanta residents, we see what’s really on the table: wildly inflating rent prices, more congestion on the roads, and soon, delivery drones buzzing over our heads,” the website reads. “The influx of thousands of socially insulated techies permanently damaging the cultural vibrancy of the city, as people of color and the working poor are forced outside the perimeter. A few more short-contract and benefit-free ‘jobs’ in stockrooms for those who manage to stay in the city, where workers will be treated like the robots that will soon replace them.”
Boston Loathes The Olympics, Loves Amazon
New England’s largest city is booming, but it still grapples with the preconceived notion that its residents are hesitant to embrace broad changes. Most residents still like to complain about the Big Dig, a planned $2.6B project to ditch an elevated expressway through the heart of downtown in favor of a network of tunnels that ballooned to $24B if one counts interest. The most recent example stems from the city’s grass-roots movement that ended Boston’s brief tenure as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chosen bid to advance to the race to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Shortly after the city was selected as America’s pick as host city in 2015, polls showed 55% of Massachusetts residents were in favor while nearly 40% opposed. Support quickly plummeted.
No Boston Olympics was formed before Boston advanced in the Olympics bidding process, and the organization highlighted the reckless spending, displacement and corruption that historically accompanied hosting duties for the Olympics. Public support for the game fell to 44% within a month of the USOC decision, and in March of 2015, public opposition was consistently polling over 50%. The organization’s ability to drum up opposition was widely seen as a catalyst for the USOC pulling the plug on Boston’s bid in July 2015.
The concerted effort to snuff out Boston’s Olympics ambition has drawn parallels to its quest for Amazon HQ2, and pundits figured opposition would eventually emerge for the Seattle-based company boosting its local presence. The pundits are still waiting.
“The Olympics was a very clear case. The history and process were clear; the incentives and auction dynamics were very clear. It was pretty natural to come to a case that this is going to be something economically bad for the city and state,” No Boston Olympics co-founder Liam Kerr said. “Amazon has a bigger upside and a lot less certainty what the process looks like. You can’t be a knee-jerk no here.”
Greater Boston seems to agree. Unlike the diminishing support of Boston’s time as the U.S. bid city for the 2024 Summer Olympics, support for Amazon HQ2 is growing. An October WBUR poll showed 66% of Boston voters supported the city’s bid to win Amazon, and 20% opposed. Four months later and after Boston had clinched a spot on the shortlist, a new WBUR poll showed support had increased to 71% and disapproval had dropped to 18%.
“For the 21st century, having an Amazon can bring a unique entrepreneurial ecosystem and supply chain halo effect,” Kerr said. “Can you have a Harvard effect with something like Amazon?”
The Trump Train
An unlikely ally in the last week to the coalition of anti-HQ2 players has been U.S. President Donald Trump. In a series of tweets, Trump accused Amazon of putting smaller retailers out of business, taking advantage of the United States Postal Service, not paying its fair share in taxes and using the Washington Post as a lobbying arm.
The D.C. coalition is not ready to embrace the president’s message, arguing that — while some of his arguments are correct — they come from the wrong place.
“He doesn’t have a firm analysis of what’s going on,” McLaughlin said. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”