Local Peace Economy

Many Cities Will Do Anything to Get Amazon's Attention in Their Desperation to Fix Their Economy

Cities should think big and creatively to better the lives of their own people, not to attract Amazon.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Weiss / Shutterstock

Amazon says it’s going to build a new headquarters. It's calling it HQ2, and plans on sinking $5 billion into its construction and operation.

While “So what?” is probably most people's response to that announcement, decaying American cities nationwide had a different reaction: “Amazon could save us!”

The desperate plea is heard across the land, from Bayonne, New Jersey to Gary, Indiana. Cleveland is begging for the company, and so is Detroit, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Tampa.

Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, and dozens more cities are getting proposals ready, and fantasy news articles are lustily imagining the behemoth taking over their ghost malls and adding a huge tax base of 50,000 “high wage technology workers” all making six-figure salaries.

Danbury made a passionate Facebook video to woo Amazon—the "Danbury difference." D.C. made a cutesy one. Birmingham made a big Amazon box. Tucson tried bribing Amazon with a cactus, but Amazon donated it instead, making a public show of not accepting gifts. And Kansas City’s mayor spent way too much time (and money?) giving 1,000 Amazon products five-star reviews.

These appeals stink of desperation, and these cities are looking for love in a very wrong place.

Amazon is clear about what it wants: a “stable and business-friendly environment,” and a place willing to “think big and be creative.” And “mass transit,” meaning “Direct access to rail, train, subway/metro, bus routes” is a must. And, of course, tax incentives, including “initial capital outlay and ongoing operational costs.”

Tax incentives aside, how many cities can meet Amazon’s basic transit needs? 

Detroit, for example, has no functional public transit. You can’t easily get from the airport, located 20 miles outside of Detroit, to downtown Detroit without a car. Yet local feudal lord Dan Gilbert called Detroit “a real contender” for HQ2, and Trumpian-bragged, “We had large consulting firms donating their time" to help put together the city’s bid.

That this is what passes for serious "contender”-ship in local media is pathetic. Amazon is on the record saying it will give “serious consideration” to every proposal it receives.

And Detroit’s workforce? The adult functional illiteracy rate is nearly 50%. Those 50,000 six-figure salaried positions won’t go to a truly local workforce with zero to little tech training. As if it slowly dawned on Michigan leadership that perhaps their lack of planning for the future is coming back to bite them, they proposed to partner with Windsor, Ontario—their neighbor on the other side of the Detroit river—to sweeten the deal. 

The problems? Limited ways to cross the river. And a population near the only bridge suffering from health problems from long lines of 18-wheelers idling in stopped traffic, waiting to cross.

But a Detroit-Windsor partnership makes sense on paper. Just like a Buffalo-Rochester partnership, or an Indianapolis-Fishers partnership

Stronger together, for corporate cash, seems to be the motto.

Yet Detroit does meet one of Amazon’s most important criteria: It certainly is big business-friendly. After all, poor taxpayers pay for the money-makers of the rich all the time. But the environment sucks—there are many articles on the city's air pollution—and spend a January day in Detroit’s un-plowed neighborhoods, and the city rapidly looks less enticing.

Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana, was at least honest about her city’s situation, writing to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that the best part of moving to Gary would be the “people—resilient, eager to work.” Eager, because they are poor and desperate: “People are leaving...[and there is] an increase in crime, because people can’t find jobs and revert to bad ideas. You can’t fix the buildings because you don’t have the tax base, and the city crumbles.”

She also makes a leap from Gary’s quest to attract Amazon to the birth of the United States: “It was far-fetched for 13 scrawny American colonies to succeed against the might of the British Empire,” she writes, so coming to Gary might seem far-fetched, too, but no less viable.

All of this isn’t to say Gary or Detroit are bad. 

But rather than put Chanel lipstick on an old industrial city and beg to be loved, cities ought to take a long honest look at where they are and how they could improve—not for a corporate tycoon, but for their own citizens. Cities would be wise to think big and creatively for their own people to rise up, together—not to demonstrate how fast they can sell out to a corporation. 

Cities can, should, indeed must facilitate mass transit because their citizens will benefit—not Amazon. 

And they need to develop a meaningful, skilled workforce—not one based on dead-end, minimum wage jobs in packing and shipping—but one based on meeting and fulfilling basic needs. Food, shelter, community needs, skilled labor, small businesses, cooperatives and credit unions. 

Also, criminal justice reform can help. And cities can and should make sure the entire population is literate. 

Cities would also be wise to cultivate tax incentives and breaks for their own local population, their own small business owners, and their own poor first, before asking them for tax dollars to pay Amazon. Who needs that money more? Amazon or your own people?

For U.S. cities to make true, sustainable progress, these are the kinds of things they need to look to.

Amazon says, “land, site preparation, tax credits/exemptions, relocation grants, workforce grants, utility incentives/grants, permitting, and fee reductions….The initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers.” 

I’ll translate that for you: The more of our bills your taxpayers will pay, the more likely we are to choose you.

Like annexing an entire portion of your city and naming it “Amazon”—as Stonecrest, Georgia proposes? Or giving the corporate giant $5 billion in tax breaks

Certainly, there are more localized and healthier uses for that land and money. What do local homeless families need? Children? The elderly? Working families? Young people? The amount of good a city could do with a chunk of land and $5 billion… imagine that for a moment. What would you want to see done with land and money in your own city?

All you need is to think big, and be creative, and put your local population’s health before the health of a corporate giant that doesn’t really care about you or your city beyond what will benefit it. 

There are solutions to small-town America’s problems, and I promise you, the solution is not giving Amazon your land and your money. Don’t pay Amazon’s bills. If that’s what your city leadership is proposing, perhaps it’s time to seek new leadership. 

Valerie Vande Panne is an AlterNet writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.

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