Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is giving up his helipad—at least, the one planned for New York City.
In a stunning move announced Thursday, Amazon is pulling out of its deal to build a second headquarters in New York, as “a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project,” the corporate giant said in a statement. Amazon was to receive roughly $3 billion in tax subsidies in an opaque deal that was approved without input from local residents and local politicians (other than Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill DeBlasio).
Amazon’s contest for its second headquarters, which had cities throwing money at the company, resulted in Amazon splitting its decision and choosing two well-established cities on the East Coast, Crystal City (a suburb of Washington, D.C.) and Long Island City, Queens. The company also announced that it would be building an operational hub in Nashville, Tennessee.
It was not merely state and local politicians who pushed Amazon out of New York, but a vast army of local activists who began organizing against Amazon’s tax-subsidized intrusion into New York long before it announced its plans three months ago. In time, they forced their politicians to reckon with how Amazon would actually affect the local community. Organizers blasted not only the shrouded process through which Amazon chose New York, but also the company’s treatment of unions and its work with ICE.
Four months ago, when Amazon unveiled its plans, a de facto coalition formed among activists agitating against Amazon in New York, Northern Virginia, and Nashville.
“Today marks an important organizing victory for New York City residents, proving that community-led organizing and courageous local leadership can shape the world we want,” the coalition said in a statement yesterday, after Amazon announced it would be leaving New York.
New York organizers, who included leaders from unions and community organizations, had been “settling in for the long haul,” anticipating that they’d be fighting Amazon for years, Anatole Ashraf, one of the founders of PrimedOut NYC, a community organization opposed to Amazon’s move to New York, told The Washington Post.
Activists from Northern Virginia and Nashville, however, are indeed settling in for a lengthy battle. But given the events of this week, they’re optimistic.
“We’re all just so proud and in awe of the work that the folks in New York have done,” says Alex Howe, one of the organizers against Amazon’s move to Northern Virginia and member of the Northern Virginia branch of the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists, one of many groups involved in the anti-Amazon organizing. He says that the victory in New York is good for the local movement, “because it shows that Amazon is not impervious, and that we do have a chance to make a difference.”
Howe readily admits that Northern Virginia activists’ efforts against Amazon are facing “an uphill battle.” Whereas New York’s activists had some state and local politicians supporting them, the community organizers in Northern Virginia are mostly on their own. Howe also points out that Amazon officials have not had to appear at city council meetings in Northern Virginia, as they did in New York and were grilled by council members. “One of the [Arlington County] board members [told us] something to the effect, We’re not going to have Amazon in the room, if we do that you’re just going to yell at them,” Howe recounts.
Because Amazon has left New York, many other cities have hoped that Amazon will instead move to their city, or in the case of some officials in Virginia and Tennessee, expand its plans for their communities.
Howe doesn’t think, however, that Virginia’s incentives to Amazon (which, when including the cost of a public university campus, come to about $1.8 billion) will rise, especially in light of New York’s organizing win. “They don’t want to go through the headache of it [and] risk giving [activists] more fuel,” he says.
As such, the calculus of what the Northern Virginia organizers are trying to do isn’t really going to change, Howe says, except that they’ll have “more hope [and] more energy … when we ask people to join us canvassing.” The win, he says, “gives us something to point to.” The organizers are taking advantage of that energy by hosting a community forum next week to educate residents on what the deal means and what the path forward is for activists.
For Nashville activists with the advocacy group Stand Up Nashville (SUN), the New York decision, while exciting, also “sounded the alarm,” says Odessa Kelly, SUN’s co-chair. There’s a real fear that Amazon will decide to build up its smaller Nashville hub in lieu of its massive New York site—and city officials seem to hope that could be the case.
"If there is another opportunity for additional jobs from Amazon or any other company, we will evaluate the project and respond appropriately," Nashville Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Dawn Cornelius told The Tennessean. "We continue to be excited about Amazon’s announced expansion here.”
In its Thursday statement, Amazon merely said the company “will proceed as planned in Northern Virginia and Nashville.” But as with the deal in New York, Nashville residents were almost entirely left out of the process that attracted Amazon to their city. “We just woke up on a Tuesday morning and found out Amazon was coming to Nashville,” Kelly says. “The lack of democracy [you saw] in New York is the same thing we’ve been dealing with here. We have the same questions and we want the same answers.”
Like their counterparts in Northern Virginia, Nashville activists will also host a town hall—Friday—on Amazon’s move to the city. It had been planned for some time, but after yesterday’s announcement, “we’ve seen our event explode,” says Anne Barnett, the other co-chair of SUN. “We’re terrified of the potential of [what] might be on the horizon [for Nashville], but at the same time we feel really happy that people are paying attention and want to be involved now,” she tells the Prospect. Amazon officials were invited to the forum, but declined, as they have to every invitation to engage with Nashville residents, the SUN co-chairs say.
Amazon’s announcement to abandon their New York plans comes on the heels of a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showing that Amazon made a profit of $11.2 billion in 2018, and, through its navigation of tax loopholes, did not pay any federal income taxes, instead gaining a tax rebate of $129 million.
Though city and state governments tout the tax incentives they offer Amazon as necessary for the corporation to bring jobs to their communities, many studies have shown that such incentives do little to benefit local economies. The upshot of such research, Greg Leroy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, told Next City in 2018, is that “Despite the fact that state elected officials mouth lots of platitudes about small businesses and mom and apple pie, they don’t really put their money where their mouth is.”
It’s also unlikely that the new jobs Amazon would provide—most of them requiring highly-skilled workers—would benefit the people who need jobs most. More likely, as highly-educated workers move into the region, those jobs would contribute to rising housing and transit costs. If so, low-income people would be most affected—and communities of color disproportionately so. That’s been one major effect of Amazon’s growth in Seattle, the site of the company’s original headquarters.
In other words, it’s the negative consequences of these expansions – not the positive ones – that tend to trickle down to the working class and poor residents of the affected communities. That’s why organizers in Nashville and Northern Virginia are so concerned.
“Our whole purpose is to get more democracy and transparency around the way that our city develops,” says Barnett. “Nashville has been luring big companies to move their headquarters here, and they’ve all promised the same thing Amazon is promising … [that] we’re all going to see positive results … But what we’ve seen is it actually just enriches a few in our city, and causes problems for the majority.”
“You just see people’s lives getting harder and harder,” Howe says, describing how community residents are pushed out of their houses as rents rise, but cities continue to offer tax incentives to big companies. “Amazon is not the cause; it’s just making the current problem worse.
“This is bigger than Amazon. When this incentive battle ends, we’re not done here.”
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