The bizarre beauty contest behind Amazon’s search for a new US home

Retailer’s hunt for new HQ prompts stunts from tax promises to five-star reviews and a cactus

Nissa Scott monitors a console that controls robots in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, which has offered the company up to $7bn in tax incentives. Photograph: The New York Times

Nissa Scott monitors a console that controls robots in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, which has offered the company up to $7bn in tax incentives. Photograph: The New York Times

 

Two hundred and thirty-eight candidates have been whittled down to 20. Getting there was “very tough” and everyone showed “tremendous enthusiasm and creativity”, but there will be only one winner in the hunt for America’s Next Top Amazon Headquarters.

The bizarre beauty contest has seen mayors around the US attempt to woo the $600 billion (€491 billion) technology company to build its second headquarters, Amazon HQ2, in their city, with offers of generous tax breaks, subsidised construction costs, gifts (including a giant cactus from Tucson, Arizona) and even name changes.

What’s at stake? Jobs! 50,000 of them! Paying an average of more than $100,000 each. It’s the urban planning equivalent of an Oprah giveaway.

“You get a job! You get a job! You get a job!”

At a time when the US job market is stagnant, it’s no wonder that cities have discarded their dignity in their bids.

Birmingham, Alabama, installed giant buttons in the city resembling Amazon’s one-click ordering Dash devices. Instead of automatically ordering replacement laundry detergent, the buttons would trigger one of 600 tweets attempting to sell the city to the technology company.

Kansas City mayor

Kansas City’s major bought 1,000 Amazon products and gave them all five-star reviews in which he shoehorned a mini pitch for the city. He used the purchase of a $14.99 “premium wind chimes” to mention how the “average home price is just $122k, so I know luxe living doesn’t have to cost a ton”.

Others went to more extreme lengths, with New Jersey proposing $7 billion in potential tax credits if the company relocated to Newark and met its hiring commitments.

Such viral marketing stunts, combined with the very public promotion of the contest by Amazon, make the whole thing seem like a dystopian reality TV show, where cities gamble taxpayers’ money in the hope that this global corporate Midas will grace them with its presence.

In its pitch to cities, Amazon points to the $38 billion boost (according to its own calculations) it has given to Seattle’s economy between 2010 and 2016. The company talks of 33 buildings, 93,000 jobs (both its own staff and jobs created indirectly), a surge in demand for hotels and donations to charities.

However, as the 276 Oprah audience members discovered when they each had to pay a $7,000 tax bill on their gifted Pontiacs, nothing in life is free.

“We’ve seen a quadrupling of housing prices, longer commutes and young professionals who are not able to raise a family to have to find jobs elsewhere,” said Jeff Hou, a Seattle based professor of urban design and planning.

“People with limited incomes lose out. Real estate developers and people who own properties are the primary beneficiaries.”

– Guardian service

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