Amazon HQ: The 800-Pound Gorilla in NoVa

The forum was put on by WAMU public radio, and MC'd by Kojo Nnamdi, a popular news commentator on the station. A large crowd attended, most from Arlington and Alexandria.

People had lots of questions, concerns and demands, from a diversity of viewpoints:

  • Why are we helping this huge business, when small business creates most of the jobs? Amazon is a monopoly, crushing competition.
  • What will the arrival of 25,000 Amazon jobs do to transportation, housing, rents, parking? If housing values go up as expected, can we afford the higher property taxes?
  • Will it drive poor, working class and people of color out through massive gentrification?
  • Will unions get a chance to organize in Amazon? What about construction unions?
  • Why was this deal negotiated in secret?

Most critical comments focused on how can we reduce the negative impacts and obtain some benefits from Amazon's arrival. A small minority hope to stop Amazon from coming to NoVa at all.

The moderator, Kojo  Nnamdi, pressed local officials to answer tough questions, but did not take a stand on the many issues raised at the forum.

Even if local  government decides to play hardball with Amazon (which seems unlikely), do they have the economic power and political clout to make demands stick?

Katie Cristol, the Arlington County Board chair, said repeatedly that local governments are very limited in what they can demand of Amazon because of pro-business laws passed by Republicans in the Virginia legislature.

Some speakers raised objections to Amazon's arrival, including Roshan Abraham, an organizer with Our Revolution Arlington. He suggested a nonprofit community land trust  be set aside for affordable housing. Carmen Romero, of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, said her group wants to be at the table when housing plans are negotiated.

It seems that a key decision-making time will be January and February 2019, when the state legislature in Richmond is expected to allocate funds, pass laws and approve plans for the giant development. For those who want to stop HQ2 or make demands about it, that's the best opportunity to have an impact. It's not at  all clear that state and local governments are prepared to push hard for community benefits from Amazon, such as low-income housing or job training.

While Amazon's arrival will affect the entire Metro area, including the DC and Maryland labor and housing markets, decision-making power is concentrated in Virginia.

The mega-project has two distinct parts: 1) Amazon's HQ in Arlington, focused initially in  Crystal City, and 2) A new Virginia Tech "innovation" campus in Alexandria.

Direct subsidies to Amazon include 550 million dollars from Virginia in performance based grants and 23 million from Arlington. The bulk of the incentives come in the  form of transportation projects and the creation of a state-funded tech pipeline via the VTech "Innovation Campus" in Alexandria and other education funding.

Amazon is coming to NoVa not because it offered the biggest subsidies - Maryland's $8.5  billion offer dwarfed Virginia's - but because of amenities like a strong  tech labor market and attractive urban living.

Crystal City was attractive to Amazon because the area lost about 24,000 federal jobs in the past 17 years, leaving much vacant office space. So no construction is needed immediately. Blue and Yellow Metro lines that serve the area are now under capacity. In addition to  the 25,000 Amazon employees expected, another 25,000 workers will probably come to the area, e.g., service and support jobs.

For activists who want to stop Amazon, or who want to make it serve the community, the forum in Crystal City showed that there are an awful lot of people who are ready to join that fight.


For more, here's a link to coverage of the event.

Here's the WaPo article covering the Memorandum of Understanding between the state and Amazon.

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