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Cities are putting Amazon before their residents

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Last September, Amazon announced that they are planning to open a second headquarters in an undecided city. The new headquarters would be similar to the facility in Seattle, historically the major hub for the online retail titan, and would employ nearly 50,000 employees and invest $5 billion in infrastructure.

Since the announcement, 238 regions and cities across North America have applied to be the lucky recipient of the coveted “Amazon HQ2”.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos is keeping the competition very secretive and selective. To qualify for the HQ2, a city applicant must meet specific criteria, such as a minimum population of 1 million, public transportation, proximity to an airport, and a business-friendly environment, among other things. A shortlist of 20 finalists was released Jan. 18., including Dallas and Austin.

In the scramble to curry favor with Bezos and Amazon, local city governments are neglecting the well-being of their residents and are willing to pay a high price at the cost of the greater good of their communities.

Some proposals are odd, such as Kansas City Mayor Sly James posting 1,000 five-star reviews to the site. Surely beneath the office of such an official, but this is relatively benign and far from the worst lengths applicants are reaching for.

In their proposal, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and the state legislature announced they would be prepared to offer Amazon $7 billion in tax incentives over the course of a decade if Newark was selected for HQ2. Moreover, California governor Jerry Brown offered a similar tax break if a Californian city won the bid.

Even more insidious, Chicago’s bid explicitly allows Amazon to pocket the taxes paid by the workers. Instead of HQ2’s workers’ taxes going to public schools, infrastructure, and public transportation, it would go directly back into Bezos’ pocket. Even entertaining the thought of Amazon directly taking tax revenue from the American people should make any local government official’s blood boil. Elected officials suggesting tax breaks and tax revenue offerings for the richest man in the world are embarrassing the people who put them there. Additionally, in doing so they set a dangerous precedent in which the titans of industry are allowed to do to the people, to a degree unparalleled since the Gilded Age.

Some finalists such as Denver and Toronto are playing it cool, opting to play up the inherent attractive qualities of their cities. Attempting to snag HQ2 by using the already evident qualities of one’s city is the better route for applicants. Instead of desperately debasing the community by giving Amazon nearly free-reign over its own taxes, city governments should stand confidently with their residents and affirm their worth independent of what Amazon can milk from them. And should Amazon select their community, local governments have an obligation to protect their constituents from predatory practices of multi-billion dollar companies, especially if they were invited to the city with their cards on the table. No amount of private sector job creation is worth selling city governments, its most vulnerable residents and its soul to the highest bidder.

Of the 238 applying cities and regions, only two have voluntarily withdrawn their bids for the HQ2: San Antonio and Little Rock. While other mayors and city councils resort to desperate tactics to catch Bezos’ eye, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg made it clear he would not subject the city to the rat race. In a joint letter with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Nirenberg declared “we have a competitive toolkit of incentives, but blindly giving away the farm isn’t our style”.

Other cities might take care to follow San Antonio’s example. As for the city who eventually beats out the rest of the competition, hopefully it was worth the price — for the residents’ sake.

– Zach Ienatsch is a journalism senior

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