Last Fall, Amazon officially announced that they were planning to build a second North American headquarters. Cities around the country were eager to be selected as the honored recipient and jumped to court the retail behemoth in exchange for the projected $5.5 billion in investment and 50,000 jobs with salaries averaging over $100,000. One week ago, Amazon finally released the shortlist of twenty cities still in the running for the lauded after headquarters, with North Carolina’s own Raleigh among the chosen few.
While all of the prospective locations have a considerable amount to offer Amazon, there’s also a decent possibility that the electronic commerce giant will choose the Research Triangle to call home. The Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill region has one of most educated populations in the United States on every level: high school diplomas, bachelor’s degrees and PhDs. In addition to having a wild swath of local talent to chose from, the Research Triangle has also established itself as a center for technology on the East Coast, with companies such as IBM and SAS maintaining a strong presence in the area. Moreover, the three nationally recognized universities located in the region are constantly producing the new, excited innovators that Amazon is looking for.
However, Amazon’s blessing may be a red herring. The company has been accused of causing devastating levels of gentrification in Seattle, Washington. Median rents in the Pacific Northwest metropolis have reflected that with increases at three times the national average between 2005 and 2015. The expedited up-charge in housing costs prices out non-homeowners in the city while benefitting property owners immensely. But destroying affordable housing markets isn't the company’s only egregious sin. Amazon is also responsible for well-documented labor abuse. In 2011, a local newspaper investigated the Amazon packing facility in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. Reporters found that Amazon was tracking employee productivity and holding the threat of termination over employees’ heads if they did not reach their outrageous packing quotas. While these conditions are “normal” in a warehouse, Amazon was doing so in a building lacking air conditioning. The employees were pushed so hard, that Amazon had ambulances on standby outside the facility to treat workers for dehydration or heat exhaustion.
Beyond the morally reprehensible—to say the least—practices of the corporation, the Triangle needs to consider what exactly Amazon would bring to the region. Raleigh already has a steadily increasing population and economic prosperity—incomes are in the top third of the United States’ large metro areas. Despite the Triangle’s economic success, civic leaders are still vying for Amazon with tax money that could otherwise be better spent on public schools, infrastructure and affordable housing. City leaders are developing an economic incentive package behind closed doors, giving citizens no opportunity to comment on how their money is being handed over to the most valuable retailer in the United States. If the Triangle provides a package similar to Newark and New Jersey, that would mean $7 billion in tax payer money would be going to a company worth almost $500 billion.
As leaders throughout the Triangle attempt to woo Amazon, they should move beyond blind support and be more critical of Amazon’s possible presence in North Carolina. While the most privileged of the region have a lot to gain from the company moving in, the most vulnerable have much to lose—including their very place within the region. While local government leaders are committing sizable amounts of time to seducing Jeff Bezos and other business leaders, perhaps they should commit just as much energy—if not far more—to considering exactly how they will help the communities most affected by increases in cost of living if Amazon eventually does decide to sink its talons in the capital.
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