City Paper is not for tourists
Last week, in response to an open-records request by WAMU, the District divulged that it offered Amazon a record-setting incentives package in an effort to win the tech giant’s new headquarters. The HQ, Amazon says, will create 50,000 jobs and other benefits wherever it goes.
But D.C.’s six-page response to the request contained significant redactions. More than half a page on a proposed “Amazon University”—described as “a customized education and training center for Amazon”—is blacked out, as is a full page under the heading “Additional Incentives For Amazon.”
Curious to know what might be under the redaction boxes, City Paper did some research and asked around to gauge the possibilities.
Some of the incentives—those not obscured—are known. They fall under D.C.’s existing “Qualified High Technology Companies” program, which has lured firms like the Advisory Board and Yelp to operate in the city. The Amazon package contains reduced corporate and property taxes as well as tax credits per employee.
Experts say the unknowns probably include incentives that the QHTC program doesn’t cover. D.C. could be promising Amazon land for free or at a substantial discount (not an unusual offer to developers of affordable housing on public land); new infrastructure like roads, gas lines, and electric grids; and waived or refunded taxes above QHTC standards.
Some of the information D.C. ultimately withheld after an appeal by WAMU, according to a Jan. 4 letter from the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, “appears to contain incentives offered to Amazon by private entities who have partnered with the District” on the bid. Those incentives are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act because these entities could “suffer competitive harm” were they released, the letter says.
All told, D.C.’s carrots could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, and perhaps more than $1 billion when accounting for the unknowns. On the high end of the bids that have been publicly disclosed, New Jersey has proposed $7 billion in incentives, and Maryland $5 billion. (The “additional incentives” in Montgomery County’s pitch were also removed from the results of a public-records request.)
And that’s before Amazon enters into further discussions with the 20 jurisdictions on its shortlist, unveiled last Thursday. With Montgomery County and Northern Virginia up for consideration too, some say the region is in a strong position for the HQ. Others say a race to the bottom is underway, and it will only intensify as the selection process, expected to conclude this year, proceeds.
Community members have various musings on what the District pitched. Some are serious, others tongue-in-cheek.
Denise Krepp, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Hill East, says she’s concerned officials have offered Amazon the land on which the D.C. General shelter sits for free. That land—part of a large, underdeveloped site called Reservation 13—features in one of the four sites in the District’s October bid.
On Sunday, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that D.C. General would close this fall. Bowser officials deny that the bid has anything to do with the shelter’s anticipated shuttering, which has been in the works for years. (About 250 families currently live at D.C. General.)
Krepp, who expressed anger after learning that a city official had withheld information about the inclusion of Reservation 13 in the District’s bid during an October community meeting, says she’s not convinced, “based on the lack of transparency.”
“Free property that will not be taxed is indeed a shiny object, but it will not fill D.C.’s tax coffers,” she says. “Nor will it provide housing and food for displaced residents.”
Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, suggested that Amazon employees would get, as a benefit, “first dibs on confiscated tents from homeless encampments that have been destroyed to make space for art installments,” referring to the city’s clearing of homeless people in NoMa two weeks ago.
And local activist Ari Schwartz harped on the Amazon University concept, which he called “supplication.”
“Let’s just make Bezos Duke of D.C. and get it over with,” he wrote of Amazon (and Washington Post) owner Jeff.