$741 million tax incentives for Amazon in NE Illinois – with a bigger price tag for economically challenged communities

Amazon has constructed 36 facilities in the Chicago region since 2015. And they got a lot of help from taxpayers in disadvantaged communities:

WBEZ

To help pay for its vast expansion, the company and its developers have won at least $741 million in taxpayer-funded incentives in northeast Illinois alone, according to a Better Government Association/WBEZ investigation…

Amazon collected less than $100 million in public incentives for the 15 warehouses it built in predominantly white communities but won more than $640 million in taxpayer incentives for the 21 projects built in communities with larger nonwhite populations, the examination found. Many of those communities are either mostly Black, mostly Latinx or have higher concentrations of low-income residents, and with municipal budgets already short on cash.

Records show the three largest incentive packages Amazon received — totaling $512 million — all came from predominantly Black suburbs. By contrast, the company built warehouses in at least seven mostly white communities that reported offering no public incentives at all…

While many of the communities may get more jobs, experts interviewed say the lost revenue from taxpayer incentives will strain public resources to rebuild crumbling roads from the truck traffic, mitigate pollution from the exhaust fumes and noise and to pay for other services such as police protection and fire prevention.

That big companies seek out tax breaks and local incentives is not new. Amazon played the game on a grand scale with its proposed second headquarters.

But, this illustrates one of the problems with tax breaks in general: it is a race to the bottom. Companies look for communities that will have a hard time saying no. What mayor or local official wants to turn down local jobs? Or, turn away a big company with the status like Amazon? Once they have such a company in town, communities often build on this when marketing land and facilities to other firms by saying they are home to Amazon.

Yet, the deal may not be a good one. Jobs are not the only factor that matters in a community. As the story above notes, traffic, pollution, noise, the strain on local budgets and services, and the quality of the jobs also matter. Does the addition of Amazon or another large company make the community as a whole better down the road?

The system could be improved in multiple ways. All the communities in a region could stop competing in this way; that Amazon locates within one municipality could also have spillover benefits for other communities. One community’s gain is not necessarily one community’s loss; the region operates as a whole. If revenue was shared across a region, then tax breaks in a particular community would matter less. Or, communities could just commit not to offer tax breaks at all. If companies cannot play the game, they would have to locate places for other reasons.

These possible solutions do not solve the underlying issues: jobs and capital in a metropolitan region are not evenly distributed. Patterns by race and class continue for decades as companies, residents, and other seek out particular locations and not others. That some communities have to pay more for Amazon to locate there just compounds the problem.

Filling empty shopping mall space with Amazon

Amazon might be coming to a shopping mall near you:

group of people walking inside building

Photo by Laurentiu Robu on Pexels.com

The talks have focused on converting stores formerly or currently occupied by J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears Holdings Corp., these people said. The department-store chains have both filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and as part of their plans have been closing dozens of stores across the country. Simon malls have 63 Penney and 11 Sears stores, according to its most recent public filing in May…

Amazon fulfillment centers wouldn’t draw much additional foot traffic to the mall, though some employees could eat and shop at the mall. That is why landlords have preferred to replace department stores with other retailers, gyms, theaters or entertainment operators. Yet many of these tenants are struggling to survive during the pandemic and aren’t in expansion mode.

Simon would likely rent the space at a considerable discount to what it could charge another retailer. Warehouse rents are typically less than $10 a square foot, while restaurant rents can be multiples of that. Depending on when the leases were signed and their locations, department-store rents can be as low as $4 a square foot or as high as $19 a square foot…

Malls’ strategic locations often make them attractive as distribution hubs. Many are near main highways and residences. Amazon has already acquired the sites of some failed malls and converted them to fulfillment centers. FedEx Corp. and DHL International GmbH have done the same.

Dying shopping malls need businesses willing to rent space. But, as the article notes, Amazon is an odd choice: they are partly responsible for the decline of traditional retailers, they may or may not bring in customers for other businesses, and they can ask for lower rental rates. But, what choice do many malls have?

I am trying to imagine former shopping malls that become Amazon centers with more life to them than the typical warehouse setting. The former department stores and other retail spaces can mimic large warehouse spaces while the walkways, fountains and other features, and occasional other tenant provide variety and recreational space for employees. Think tech campuses with a warehouse/shopping mall feel. Or, go further: as shopping malls consider adding residential space, why couldn’t Amazon convert some of the mall space into living quarters for workers? (Perhaps this also lends itself to dystopian visions.)

Not mentioned here: how local governments would like the conversion of retail or restaurant space – good for sales tax revenue – to warehouse space.

Welcome in Amazon, look for other businesses to follow?

Amazon will soon open a new facility in Palatine, Illinois and get a tax break to do so. That is normal. This other part caught my attention: the suburb hopes Amazon’s arrival helps spur more development.

Amazon will move into a warehouse and distribution facility under construction off Hicks Road south of Northwest Highway, and Palatine officials hope the online retail giant’s arrival sparks more development in that industrial area.

“This is a good bit of news for us, for sure,” Mayor Jim Schwantz said Monday. “It’s the right kind of use for that area. It’s a light draw on our services. It’s not going to take a ton of water. It’s not going to take police or fire calls. We know Hicks Road is built to be able to handle the additional traffic.”

Lots of communities want Amazon to move in. They bring jobs, they fill warehouses, and they bring a big name. Just remember all the cities that put together plans to try to allure Amazon HQ#2.

But, this is another dimension of having a successful company move into your community: it could lead to further growth. Having Amazon puts you on the map. Companies could choose from dozens of warehouse or manufacturing locations in the Chicago region. But, if Amazon is already there, this may attract other firms. Success begets success, growth leads to more growth.

Another example, perhaps two decades in the making: suburbs and neighborhoods all wanted a Starbucks. Not only would this bring in sales tax revenue and more shoppers. It put a place on the map. It suggested the place was cool enough, was up and coming or had an established set of well-off residents. Starbucks could pave the way for other similar businesses that would bring in or provide for a certain crowd.

Or, think about headquarters. These facilities may not have that many employees or may just be an office building but being home to headquarters, as opposed to branches or locations, is something special. Headquarters attract headquarters. They signal something.

A typical Amazon facility is not going to be flashy. It is not going to attract many visitors or shoppers. However, it will add to a community’s tax base, provide jobs, and help the community say they are home to one of the most important companies in America. That Amazon distribution center may be the start to something greater.

Amazon wanted a really big tax break with HQ2

When Amazon went on a search for a second headquarters, it was motivated in part by looking for a big tax break:

When Elon Musk secured $1.3 billion from Nevada in 2014 to open a gigantic battery plant, Jeff Bezos noticed. In meetings, the Amazon.com Inc. chief expressed envy for how Musk had pitted five Western states against one another in a bidding war for thousands of manufacturing jobs; he wondered why Amazon was okay with accepting comparatively trifling incentives. It was a theme Bezos returned to often, according to four people privy to his thinking. Then in 2017, an Amazon executive sent around a congratulatory email lauding his team for landing $40 million in government incentives to build a $1.5 billion air hub near Cincinnati. The paltry sum irked Bezos, the people say, and made him even more determined to try something new.

And so, when Amazon launched a bakeoff for a second headquarters in September 2017, the company made plain that it was looking for government handouts in exchange for a pledge to invest $5 billion and hire 50,000 people. The splashy reality-television-style contest generated breathless media coverage, attracted fawning bids from 238 cities across North America and ended with Amazon deciding to split the so-called HQ2 between New York and Virginia. Then progressive politicians attacked the $3 billion in incentives offered by New York, and Bezos pulled out. Amazon was widely ridiculed for its failure to court New York politicians. To understand why that happened, Bloomberg interviewed 12 people familiar with Amazon’s effort. Their story, outlined here for the first time, depicts a team that became the victim of its own hubris. Bezos’s frustration with what he deemed meager government largess prompted executives to scrap lessons learned through the years in favor of an unapologetic appeal for tax breaks and other incentives.

This news came just as we finished introducing the concept of growth machines in my urban sociology class. In this theory, coalitions of political and business leaders drive development decisions with profits and growth in mind. In this particular case, Amazon looked to cut a deal with the city that was willing to give them the most. If Amazon chose their city, political and business leaders could claim they won because of all the new jobs plus the prestige of an Amazon headquarters while Amazon would profit from massive tax breaks. As I noted then, let the race to the bottom begin.

The biggest problem with all of this is not that there is competition between locations for headquarters and business activity. This has gone on for a long time and for a variety of organizations; read about the bids to land the United Nations headquarters. The issue is that the large tax breaks mean that some of the benefits of a business moving to a community are offset by tax breaks. And who benefits more in the end? The corporate leaders, not the community as a whole.

I can imagine a television game show format with all of this: a corporation says they want to expand and help a community or region along the way. Bidders/communities bring their pitch to the show, showcasing the best of their community (and the money). The corporation narrows it down and in the end names the one winner. Everyone else loses out (outside of making a public pitch regarding the best aspects of their community). It could be very entertaining.

Three possible solutions to “American cities and states spend[ing] up to $90 billion in tax breaks and cash grants” to companies

After discussing why American communities spend so much money and effort to attract companies, Derek Thompson proposes four solutions:

First, Congress could pass a national law banning this sort of corporate bribery. Mark Funkhouser, a former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, envisions the law as the domestic version of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for Americans to bribe foreign officials.

It’s not entirely clear whether that would pass constitutional muster. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled decisively on whether the Commerce Clause gives Washington the authority to ban interstate bidding wars. In the 2006 Supreme Court case DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, Ohio taxpayers sued the state after it paid the automaker DaimlerChrysler about $280 million in tax exemptions and tax credits. The Sixth Circuit Court sided with the taxpayers, striking down Ohio’s subsidy as a violation of the Commerce Clause. But the Supreme Court avoided a final judgment on the matter by finding unanimously that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit.

Second, Congress could make corporate subsidies less valuable by threatening to tax state or local incentives as a special kind of income. “Congress should institute a federal tax of 100 percent” on corporate subsidies, Jack Markell, a former governor of Delaware, wrote in The New York Times. “This would not include investments in public infrastructure, work force development or other investments that can attract employers while also providing a significant long-term benefit to taxpayers.” Taxing subsidies would hopefully force cities to change their economic-development strategies, from importing other states’ companies to building their own—through investing in research universities, building more housing, and welcoming immigrants, since foreign-born Americans have the highest rates of entrepreneurship.

Finally, the federal government could actively discourage the culture of corporate subsidies by yelling, screaming, and penny-pinching. As Meagan Day wrote in Jacobin, “The federal government could withhold funds from governors and mayors who threaten to poach jobs from other states, or who won’t disclose their incentive packages.” Washington tends to look on quietly when cash-strapped states break the bank to welcome glitzy tech firms. But an attitude change at the top could trickle down to the local level. Donald Trump, or another president, could have made a national address after the HQ2 announcement slamming Amazon for soliciting taxpayer funds in a silent auction. He could have called a summit to encourage the nation’s mayors and governors to offer the same tax subsidy for HQ2—zero dollars and zero cents. Even a tweet could suffice: “7 BILLION FOR BEZOS?? Trillion-dollar companies in America don’t need our welfare! Bad!”

Interesting options. I have argued before that this practice leads to a race to the bottom between communities. They can even pit suburbs and cities within the same region against each other.I wonder if both businesses and communities would complain. Businesses would want to get the best deal they can. Why shouldn’t they be able to compare different offers? They may go as far as to argue that the tax breaks help them be more profitable which means they can then spread more wealth to workers and investors. Communities might prefer to keep competing because it gives them a chance to entice a business that otherwise might not move there. If tax breaks became less valuable, would certain industries and kinds of firms gather in a limited number of attractive locations? Open competitions for companies gives communities a chance to get their name out there and build a brand. Furthermore, these tax break opportunities allow local officials to show that they are making a concerted effort to bring jobs to an area.

I do not see this practice stopping soon even as we see the fallout of the Amazon race. While it may take time for the federal government to step in, communities could decide to opt out from such competitions. What would happen if in a situation like the Amazon one, the major contenders refuse to pander to the corporation?

Amazon HQ#2 may be headed to a wealthy suburb

Crystal City, Virginia may be the new home of Amazon’s second headquarters site. Here are a few features of the suburban neighborhood located in Arlington:

With the Ronald Regan Washington National Airport two miles to the east, the heart of Washington D.C. five miles to the north, and a few stops on Washington’s Metro linking all three, Crystal City is in the right geographic spot for the Seattle-based company…

Today, the neighborhood, although a part of Arlington, has its own distinct downtown area. The walkable Crystal Drive is dotted with businesses, restaurants and public art, while public/private partnerships are bringing investment in parks and open space

Home prices in Crystal City might be more affordable than they are in Seattle, but that’s not saying much. The median home value in the 22202 area, a zip code Crystal City shares with neighboring Pentagon City, Aurora Highlands and Arlington Ridge, is $625,800, according to Zillow — nearly three times the U.S. median.

Might the lack of single-family homes also be attractive to Amazon?

Crystal City is dominated by one apartment building after another, most of which don’t have ground floor retail or restaurants that would create a sense of community or neighborhood vibrancy. Walk a few blocks away from the shopping mall during any evening of the week and it’s a quiet, almost desolate place. This lack of a community might have been the final piece that Amazon was looking for since it means they can come to town without much opposition.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. On one hand, it is interesting for Amazon to choose a suburban location. A sizable headquarters would be a boon for numerous communities, particularly cities that need a shot in the arm. On the other hand, this is an urban suburban location. The location is technically outside Washington D.C. yet it is a community of high-rises with little distance with the central city in the region.
  2. A location in this region contributes to the rising status of the Washington D.C. region. While other cities and regions may still be larger, this region with its collection of government, military, and business opportunities just keeps growing.
  3. It would be interesting to see how much Amazon would want to contribute to a thriving streetscape in the community. Based on several articles, it sounds like there is limited activity in this community after business hours. Does Amazon want to contribute money to trying to develop a vibrant urban neighborhood (even if it is located in a suburb)?

Could governments ever stick to “nonaggression pacts” involving companies?

As companies like Amazon look for good deals from local communities, one economist suggests non-aggression pacts:

It’s hard to draw conclusions about how much local economies gain from fulfillment centers and whether incentives are warranted from the experience of individual towns or counties, said Tim Bartik, senior economist at the Michigan-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Fulfillment centers likely do benefit the surrounding community, but the gains may be modest compared with other types of economic development projects that could generate more business for local companies, Bartik said. The jobs have modest wages, limiting the amount workers would potentially spend at local retailers, and warehouses generally don’t patronize local suppliers, he said…

He advocates states form “nonaggression pacts” to contain costs of incentives that simply shift jobs from one part of the country to another, though he acknowledges those pledges are unlikely to stick.

“The next company comes along, and they decide it’s an exception,” Bartik said. “We haven’t seen one that’s really survived.”

Here are at least four arguments I could imagine people making against such pacts:

  1. Competition is central to the American economic system. Why shouldn’t local communities be able to offer whatever they want to attract a company or development? Having and sticking to such pacts is collusion by communities.
  2. If companies cannot get good deals from communities, they will leave the country. This would not make much sense to me as the American market is a pretty lucrative one but it could apply more for certain companies or industries.
  3. Local officials need to be able to show local results, not that they are cooperating with other places. They want to be able to say that they brought specific jobs or benefits to their community, not that the whole region is benefiting (though this may be true).
  4. What is good for companies is good for communities and America. This is a tricky argument all around: thriving companies are important yet it is much harder to figure out whether firms are helping communities in the ways they should. (This is an open question these days involving Walmart, Amazon, and tech companies.)

Perhaps the best argument that could be made for such pacts is that the general public – in the abstract – wins if companies are unable to obtain massive tax breaks or incentives for certain actions.

For better or worse, the decision Amazon makes about where to locate its second headquarter will keep this issue in the spotlight for a long time.

Can you be opposed to Walmart in your community but not Amazon?

Alana Semuels compares the fight of Greenfield, Massachusetts and other New England towns against Walmart and other big box stores to a struggle with shopping on Amazon. The story begins and ends with an activist who led the fight in Greenfield against Walmart:

Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He’s been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country—victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an “International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information.” Partly because of Norman’s efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson’s, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.

But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce…

But the challenge posed by online shopping to local businesses is immense. Even Al Norman, who refuses to shop at Walmart, says he doesn’t have the same aversion to Amazon, in part because he thinks the internet is the future of shopping. His wife has a Prime account, and he recently ordered tea from the website when he couldn’t find it locally, he said, adding that he has no plans to organize protests or zoning meetings about Amazon. He doesn’t love the idea that some of his money is going to Jeff Bezos, “the richest human around,” as he refers to the Amazon founder, and so still shops locally whenever possible. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be doing that in a decade. When he launched the first campaign against Walmart in Greenfield 25 years ago, he led activists with bumper stickers that said, “If you build it, we won’t come.” He knows the same can’t be said for Amazon, because shoppers, including him, are already there.

Can a community oppose Walmart and not Amazon? Here are some of the common complaints against Walmart and other big box retailers:

  1. Land use, particularly the large parking lots and the contribution to sprawl and driving as well as issues with water and open space.
  2. A negative influence on local businesses. Walmart’s prices and options made it an attractive place to shop compared to local small businesses.
  3. A detrimental effect on local social life, ranging from decaying downtowns that used to be at the center of civic life to low wage jobs affecting health care systems and local wealth.
  4. The wealth generated by large corporations located somewhere else with little visible impact on communities where stores are located.

Do these same concerns apply to Amazon? They could: Amazon’s warehouses and other facilities take up space, it certainly affects local businesses, it encourages less social interaction as you can shop from home, and Amazon has tremendous revenues (and its founder, like the Waltons, have tremendous wealth). But, it seems like the fact that Amazon is “somewhere else” compared to the big box stores – the physical footprint of Amazon touches fewer communities that all the locations of Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and others – means that people can support it without feeling as bad about its negative effects on communities. Because it is viewed as being online, Amazon is an issue for only some communities and not many.

Yet, I think an argument could be made that Amazon and other online retailers can shape local conditions even more than big box stores or other local retailers. The Internet makes it possible to act as if we are in a completely placeless world (even though this is not true) and to leave certain problems for others to solve in other places. Only in certain circumstances, like when cities fight to offer Amazon a great tax break or deal in order to become home to a second headquarters or groups in Silicon Valley express frustration about mammoth tech headquarters, are we reminded that even Internet companies affect communities.

To be consistent, big box retailers and Internet retailers both threaten local communities and smaller businesses. One may be more obvious than others and they offer different kinds of conveniences but both can contribute to a less civically minded and placed America.

Amazon jobs vs. no jobs in American cities and suburbs

With Amazon expanding in many locations across the United States, are these the kinds of jobs communities should seek? Here is the conclusion of one recent discussion of the issue:

It’s true that cities desperate for jobs may find it difficult to attract companies if they pass minimum-wage mandates or other labor laws. But the alternative, it seems, is jobs that don’t create a middle-class lifestyle for residents, which in turn affects local spending, the housing market, the tax base, and leads to a poor standard of living. Many cities, San Bernardino included, are calculating that any job creation is good news. They may soon find that with Amazon, that calculation does not apply.

This is not a new issue although Amazon might be the most visible manifestation of concerns right at the moment. Walmart has and still does face such questions. Fast food and retail jobs as larger categories attract this scrutiny at points.

For two reasons, I do not see most American communities during down these jobs, even if they are not ideal or even good positions of employment.

  1. Every politician from the local to federal level wants to promote job creation. It is still hard to have a deeper conversation about the kinds of jobs being created. What tends to matter are the numbers. If you are the politician who can claim adding jobs (and very rarely is this the result of one person or a short process), you have a powerful political weapon.
  2. What is the alternative to not accepting these jobs? Companies might move right over the border. This happened in Chicago when they insisted on certain with Walmart. The company responded by opening locations right over the border and the jobs and revenues went to other communities. If a community turns down jobs, will they be able to attract others? Until we have either regional cooperation where sets of communities set these conditions or states pass overarching regulations (or a third option of universal basic income?), individual communities will be forced to make tough decisions: promoting less than ideal jobs or possibly having no jobs.

This issue will continue whether with Amazon or other companies.

What the losers for Amazon HQ#2 might gain

Amazon may be leading the way to more highly public location searches and there is one way this could help the communities who lose out:

All may not be lost for the 237 also-rans, though. They’ll have thick books filled with available sites, potential incentives and glossy pages touting their best attributes, and they’ve learned lessons for their next big pitch.

“A positive outcome of this could be the self-reflection of communities throughout the country,” Sessa said. “They’ve had to be very honest about where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are. Only one is going to be selected, and the other 237 will have assembled a lot of good information. If the weaknesses are addressed, the beneficiaries will be the companies who reside there now and the companies looking to move there in the future.”

This is a positive takeaway from what promises to be a disappointing outcome for numerous major cities: they will be better positioned to make the next pitch. But, I can imagine multiple ways this self-reflection and self-improvement will not work in the long run:

  1. There are not many future large-scale searches like this for cities to participate in. Amazon is a special case both because of its size as well as its desire to add jobs (rather than relocate existing facilities and employees).
  2. It is unlikely there are enough major companies for every major city to win something in the coming years. Additionally, major companies tend to want to locate near other major companies and in hot areas.
  3. The tax breaks and incentives required to attract these companies may not be worth it, particularly in an era when many communities are struggling to generate revenues.

In my mind, honest self-reflection in many communities would involve the realization that fighting for the biggest companies is not in their best interest.