AUSTIN & AMAZON

Amazon backlash? In Austin, many are 'meh' over HQ2 pursuit

Posted February 16th, 2018

Amazon’s second headquarters coming to Austin could be the best thing to ever happen to our city.

Or it could be the worst. 

Depends who you ask. 

While residents of many of the 200-plus cities that initially submitted proposals – since whittled down to 20 finalists, including Austin – are loud and proud in their rallying for the retail giant, the reaction among many in Central Texas has been decidedly … meh. 

There’s been little in the way of organized support – or opposition – so far. That’s expected to change, though, if Seattle-based Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos pick Central Texas. 

Click here to see complete coverage of Austin’s bid for Amazon’s HQ2

Landing HQ2 would mean Amazon, over the course of several years, would hire an estimated 50,000 workers and occupy 8 million square feet of office space. That’s equivalent to 15 Frost Bank Towers. 

Even the possibility has led to much grumbling on social media – and given much fodder to Ted Meredith, an actor, comedian and writer who works with Austin’s Esther’s Follies. 

“My first thought was, ‘Man, I don’t have a Jeff Bezos impression lined up,’ which stinks for me,” Meredith said. 

Amazon’s initial call for proposals, with its lofty demands such as a metro area with 1 million or more residents and robust mass transit, “sounded like a recent college graduate trying to pick where they wanted to move next,” Meredith said. 

More traffic, should HQ2 land here, is a given. Other concerns center around the environment, lack of transparency thus far when it comes to the city’s proposal, affordability and the state’s track record when it comes to human rights. 

Environmental concerns 

 Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, is among the environmentalists keeping a close eye on Amazon's HQ2 search. The impact could potentially be bigger than anything seen before in Central Texas. 

“The environmental concerns reach from our extremely vulnerable aquifers to the sky,” he said. “Such an enormous project and the secondary growth that will follow will threaten water and air quality and endangered species habitats, and will result in even more rapid loss of open space, worsening our current shortage of parkland.” 

Should Amazon pick Austin, Bunch says, it should build somewhere downstream of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. 

“We need companies, employees and families who are looking for a home and are willing to pay their fair share as part of a healthy, sustainable community,” Bunch said. 

Ted’s take: Why build something new for Amazon? We’ve already got the perfect spot, according to Meredith. “We should just give Amazon the Capitol,” he said. “It’s not like there’s any work being done there. Plus, I’d love to see a fleet of Amazon drones flying out of the Capitol. How cool would that be?” 

 

Transparency questions 

 Many questions about Austin’s HQ2 bid remain unanswered. 

The city and the Austin Chamber of Commerce have been tight-lipped, refusing to provide the American-Statesman and other news outlets with many details such as which local property sites they pitched. 

It’s a level of secrecy not seen with some of the other contenders across the country. 

The city has, however, said it didn’t – at least initially – offer any financial incentives. 

The lack of transparency isn’t just frustrating to journalists. Several members of the community have spoken up about it, as well, including Austin watchdog Bill Aleshire. 

A local attorney, Aleshire says the city of Austin has developed an “awful record of transparency.” 

Without any advance knowledge of where HQ2 could go and other key information, Austin residents could be on track to be taken by surprise when an announcement is made. 

“Here’s my bottom line: How much tolerance will local taxpayers and voters show elected officials who secretly conspire to screw them over?” Aleshire said. 

Ted’s take: While Austin has said its pitch didn’t include financial incentives, Gov. Greg Abbott has said the state will offer Amazon an incentives package – a package that will be the same regardless of which Texas city it chooses. The only two remaining Lone Star contenders are Austin and Dallas. “We have a hard time imagining traffic getting worse here but, for all we know right now, Gov. Abbott is offering Amazon exclusive access to the entire Interstate 35 corridor to get them to come here,” Meredith said. 

 

Affordability concerns 

 Wherever it goes, Amazon has stated it would prefer for HQ2 to be close to major highways and near the city’s population center. 

But in the case of Central Texas, Bunch says the company should stay away from Central Austin – and not necessarily just for environmental reasons. 

“Skyrocketing housing costs and property taxes are already ripping at the fabric of Austin,” Bunch said. 

Amazon’s impact on rent and home prices in its hometown of Seattle is well documented. Many families have been priced out. 

It’s a scenario that’s already playing out in many parts of Austin, even without Amazon, and one that Bunch says “state and local officials are not likely to manage very well, given current politics and recent track record.” 

Ted’s take: Giving up some luxuries to be able to afford to stay in or near downtown Austin is something many folks are already doing. Get ready for more of that if Amazon comes, Meredith says. “The rent’s going to go up and that money has to come from somewhere. So, bye-bye, Instacart.” 

 

Human rights debate 

 “Hey Alexa, why would Amazon even consider putting HQ2 in a state that discriminates against LGBT people?” 

That’s the message you’ll spot on the homepage of No Gay, No Way, a group hoping Amazon will avoid Texas and eight other states because some believe they’re lacking when it comes to protections for gay and transgender individuals. 

While Austin is known as a welcoming city, Texas as a whole has a bad reputation, activists say. 

The fight over the so-called “bathroom bill” last legislative session, for example, put a bad taste in the mouth of many companies, a number of which openly opposed the measure. 

“It is shocking that Amazon would consider locating HQ2 with its over 50,000 employees in a state that doesn’t protect LGBT people or their families,” No Gay, No Way says. “In these nine states, it is legal to fire someone, deny them housing or refuse them service just because of who they are or who they love.” 

To this point, Amazon hasn't shied away from Texas. The company already has thousands of employees in Texas, where it has 10 major fulfillment centers either operating or under construction. The company also last year purchased Austin-based Whole Foods Market, which has more than 2,500 employees in the Austin metro area. 

Ted’s take: We’ll just have to wait and see. “How funny would it be if Amazon picked Austin, Gov. Abbott’s least favorite city?” Meredith asks. “Having Amazon come here is almost impossible to imagine right now, but it could become a lot more real very soon.”

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