Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Activists are on a quest to find out.
“If they won’t tell you what it is, it can’t be good,” Eugene Puryear, an author, organizer, and member of the Movement for Black Lives D.C., told a crowd. More than 100 were gathered in front of him, drawn to a D.C. church last Tuesday to protest the lack of transparency surrounding their city’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.
Of the 20 HQ2 host finalists, only a few jurisdictions have disclosed even parts of the offers they made to Amazon to lure the promise of jobs and new development. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced a new law to free up $8.5 billion in tax incentives from the state, and Newark has partnered with New Jersey to offer up to $7 billion. Atlanta and Chicago, too, are said to be offering between $1 and $2 billion.
And while residents in these cities are worried about what they know their city has offered to give Amazon, residents in others like Washington are worried about what they don’t, and fearing the worst.
Last month, labor organizers, non-profits, and socialist groups staged their own protests and press conferences in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Atlanta, calling on officials to release their bids for public appraisal and drawing attention to the damage they believe an HQ2 would inflict on their communities.
By increasing public accountability surrounding the contents of the bids themselves, activists believe they’ll be able to hold officials accountable for voting bad deals down (or negotiating better terms in advance, when the next company comes calling), and to plan more effective responses.
“The whole point was to do what our governments are refusing to do,” said Erin Shields, a member of the Black Youth Project 100, on Tuesday, according to WAMU. “To have a conversation that is open and transparent and is, most importantly, critical of what Amazon is proposing.”
Some of Washington D.C.’s offerings have been acquired from successful Freedom of Information Act inquiries filed by WAMU, revealing that the city offered property and sales tax exemptions, relocation reimbursements, and new hiring credits worth more than $100 million. But other FOIA requests have been blocked, compelling news organizations and others to file lawsuits.
Pennsylvania’s governor, for one, is holding tightly to his secret: While the president of Philadelphia’s Chamber of Congress told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Pennsylvania will offer up to $1 billion in economic incentives for both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s bids, state government officials have kept the itemized proposal private. Last month, a local news site, Morning Call, filed a public records request to expose those details, hoping to reveal the full scope of the state’s incentive package. The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records granted the request, deeming the files public records. But in April, before any of them could be released, a lawyer for the state filed a suit to block the requests again.
“We really don’t know what’s in the contract to make specific demands against it,” said Brandi Fisher, a Worker Justice Organizer with Pittsburgh United. While Pittsburgh United has not signed onto a lawsuit against the state or filed one of their own, Fisher is hoping Morning Call’s request will be granted, and she’s circulated a petition to the mayor calling on him to release it willingly.
Meanwhile, a similar lawsuit filed by Cleveland.com bore fruit last month: The Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that all the reports related to HQ2 made by the city (which did not make the finalist list) must be made public. And last week, two months after denying a FOIA request from Crains.com, Detroit released its rejected HQ2 bid, too, revealing it had offered $4 billion to the company. The city would have waived corporate city utility and income taxes for 30 years, just by using existing Michigan economic development grants and laws: “All we did was take the existing laws and incentives and multiply them out," said Mayor Mike Duggan. Although neither Cleveland nor Detroit made Amazon’s shortlist (and therefore those incentives will never be cashed in), the public now has a sense of how high future bids might climb.
There are also ways that cities could work to mandate transparency from the beginning of incentive wars like Amazon’s, should they happen again. Frustrated by the lack of public oversight for the Nashville’s HQ2 bid, Nashville council member Anthony Davis introduced the “Do Better” Nashville ordinance, which passed in January, and will add more benchmarks to a once-swift incentive approval process.
The ordinance won’t apply retroactively to Amazon’s bid. (Not only has the Nashville Chamber of Commerce declined to release the bid to the public, the Nashville Scene reported that members of the Metro Council have not been briefed in full, either.) But in the future, companies will be required to submit a proposal including details about the jobs they’d be bringing (number, quality, duration, compensation, and how many would be given to Davidson County residents) and whether they’ve had labor violations in the past 10 years—all before economic incentives are approved by the Metro Council, as Nashville’s city council is called. That proposal will also be made publicly available.
“The ‘Do Better’ Bill gives Metro Council an effective tool to determine whether the common good is being served by the incentive under consideration, as well as a way to suspend or end an incentive agreement if the company fails to hold up its side of the bargain,” reads an endorsement from labor group Stand Up Nashville. It’s measures like this that other contender cities could replicate.
Chicago’s bid to Amazon has been projected to include up to $2 billion in tax incentives, but it could hold more if the city utilizes Illinois’ EDGE economic development program, which allows Chicago to return up to 100 percent of Amazon employees’ state income tax back to Amazon. These details have been pieced together from press releases and leaked letters. But the public hasn’t seen a copy of the proposal the city submitted directly to Amazon, which likely includes more information about what specific breaks the city might offer. After the public transparency nonprofit Lucy Parsons Labs filed a lawsuit for Chicago’s bid to be released in February, the mayor’s office is fighting to block it, arguing that the city is exempt from releasing its bid “until an award or final selection is made.”
“Our main objective … is one, calling out how unfair and shrouded in secrecy this RFP process really is,” said Nathan Ryan, communications director for the Grassroots Collaborative and an organizer in Chicago. “And two, to really inject us into the conversation. Right now, the mayor and the governor have been doing this news media blitz that’s not telling you the true story of what’s happening in our communities. The community does not have a say in what’s going on, and that’s a problem.”
Chicago shut down four schools in Englewood this February, he noted; and its wounded budget can’t afford to build affordable housing fast enough for those who need it. “Our folks are being hurt right now because they continue to be disinvested from,” Ryan said. “We don't think that giving billions of dollars to one of the richest companies in the world is going to actually solve those problems—it will in fact hurt our residents instead of benefiting other folks in the neighborhood.”
Organizers are also looking to the future—towards limiting the power of the next Amazon-style bidding war, should it come. Instead of simply hoping for trickle-down benefits, legislation could work to ensure community benefits are written into contracts from the beginning. Instead of offering through-the-roof tax incentives, officials could start proposing limits. Or they could follow Seattle’s (home of HQ1) lead, levying a tax on big businesses that could begin to offset the housing and homelessness crisis that followed Amazon in.
“Unfortunately, since the first round bid has already happened and the second round bid is already in the works, we’re not focusing right now on asking any specific city leader to release the report or release the second round bid,” said Devan Spear, the Executive Director of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, which also organized an HQ2 awareness rally last month. “Our message is not, like ‘Amazon, stay out of Philadelphia,’ because Amazon’s going to put their HQ2 somewhere,” she continued. “We want to make sure that where Amazon goes, they are getting the message that they have certain things they should be accountable for.”