Business boosters squared off against former Seattle mayoral candidates Cary Moon and Nikkita Oliver in a debate on Wednesday hosted by radio station KUOW. The audience of a few hundred people was evenly split on whether Amazon has been good for the city.
Is Amazon good for Seattle?
That question — fodder for conversation in coffee shops, kitchens and online forums — took on the look of a presidential debate Wednesday evening at a packed Egyptian Theater in Seattle.
“We have been living the dream of growth and development,” said Carolyn Adolph, a KUOW reporter who has been digging into Amazon for the public radio station’s Primed podcast. “And we’ve seen the displacement that follows.”
KUOW convened Wednesday’s debate to discuss the tradeoffs of the Amazon boom, a conversation pitting a pair of former Seattle mayoral candidates against two business boosters.
That the debate happened at all, and that a few hundred people paid $5 to $10 for tickets to witness it on a Wednesday night, is a testament to Amazon’s outsized role in Seattle life.
The company is Seattle’s largest employer, and has the biggest footprint of any corporation in big American cities. In recent years, it has become a lightning rod for criticism of a wide range of trends in Seattle, from the rise in housing costs and homelessness to the latest influx in the region’s long history of drawing well paid, well-educated engineers from elsewhere.
Maud Daudon, until recently the chief of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the suggestion that Amazon was all good, or all bad, was too black and white. But “it’s fortunate that we have these hometown success stories,” she said.
Daudon came armed with many of the same stats Amazon touted when it started its search for a second headquarters last year. The company figures its own spending on buildings and wages fueled $38 billion in other investments in Seattle over a six-year period.
Nikkita Oliver and Cary Moon, both 2017 Seattle mayoral candidates who unsuccessfully challenged eventual winner Jenny Durkan, countered that the boom wasn’t widely felt. Wealth at companies like Amazon is structured to rise to the top, they said.
In Seattle, “the yachts are rising,” Moon said. “And everybody else is sinking beneath the surface.”
Oliver zoomed in on the effects of Amazon beyond Seattle, including the proliferation of logistics depots staffed by less well paid workers, as well as Amazon’s role in the rise of online commerce, and its much-debated effect on Main Street retailers.
Later in the debate, the participants hinted at a more basic question: What is the role of a company like Amazon in civic life?
The pro-Amazon camp cited Amazon’s best-known examples of local philanthropy as evidence it was a good corporate neighbor. Those includes contributions to Fare Start, a nonprofit job training program; an offer of real estate for use as a homeless shelter; and plans to incorporate a permanent homeless shelter into a future Amazon building.
“Amazon is doing a lot to try to connect to people who live here, to give them jobs,” Daudon said.
The scale of the company’s growth came as a surprise, even to Amazon, former Tacoma mayor and current Seattle chamber chief Marilyn Strickland said.
Had the government known what was coming, the city and state could have been more proactive in preparing the education system to produce graduates ready for the type of jobs Amazon is hiring for.
Oliver said Amazon’s philanthropy hasn’t done much to stem rising inequality. “I will not accept a permanent shelter as an answer to our housing crisis,” she said.
J.R. Page, a Columbia City artist who attended the debate, was reluctant to pin all of that on Amazon. The task of remedying homelessness and protecting vulnerable populations should fall to the government, he said.
“If the government isn’t doing its job, you don’t throw that at the feet of any corporation,” he said. “Amazon is such a juggernaut that it’s easy to point a finger at them.”
The audience, polled by smartphone, came into the debate slightly positive on Amazon. About 56 percent said the company was a good thing.
Asked the same question again after an hour or so of discussion, the crowd was split evenly, 50-50.
The evening had kicked off with a time-lapse video of the view from the Space Needle during the last several years, showing a rapid reshaping of the city’s core. Much the building was for, or fueled by, Amazon — a boom that has essentially stretched Seattle’s main business district to the shores of Lake Union.
The video doesn’t show the side effects in neighborhoods beyond.
Waiting in line for standby tickets before the debate, Brody Willis recalled living in a $650-a-month studio apartment about a block from the Capitol Hill theater.
About three years ago, the landlord raised the rent to more than $1,800. Willis, a nonprofit filmmaker, couldn’t stay.
Willis was drawn to the debate “as someone who feels affected by the force of gentrification,” and “the way the cost of living has impacted what I do and how I live.”
“Being an artist in this town is difficult,” Willis added.