The Arlington County Board unanimously approved a $23 million incentives package for Amazon to build a headquarters facility in Crystal City Saturday at a raucous meeting repeatedly disrupted by protesters who shouted “shame” and twice forced board members to flee the room briefly.
The 5-0 vote was the final action granting local and state subsidies to the online retail giant as part of its much publicized plan to create at least 25,000 jobs over 12 years in the Northern Virginia suburb.
The vote came at the end of six hours of testimony and debate in which supporters touted the project’s economic benefits while opponents warned that an influx of highly paid workers would jack up housing prices and displace lower income residents.
Many speakers carried signs, with some praising Amazon for promising to create jobs and others lambasting it for its potential to raise housing prices and encourage gentrification.
Opponents had hoped to postpone the vote until after additional public hearings, where they wanted representatives of the online retail giant to answer questions directly from anyone in the community.
Backers argued for the value of the jobs and economic boost they expect it to bring to the county and region.
Late in the day, board chair Democrat Christian Dorsey had to recess the meeting after opponents demanded the right to ask questions of the Amazon officials. A 15-minute disruption ensued when they learned they were not allowed to ask questions of company representatives. Opponents began chanting “shame, shame” and “ask hardball questions.”
They had spent the previous three hours giving testimony, along with Amazon supporters, but they wanted a direct back-and-forth with the corporate executives. Dorsey had previously asked the audience to respect the board’s process and let the board ask questions. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Not long after the board resumed the hearing, protester Chris Otten was physically removed from the room, screaming. He was held down on the floor just outside the room by police and security personnel. He was removed after approaching the board shouting that a vote should not be permitted.
Charles Wagner, one of the backers of Amazon’s arrival, argued the company would “grow our economy, expand our tax base and diversify our economy away from the federal government.”
June O’Connell, a 30-year resident, said Amazon’s presence would ensure that Arlington would get state money for transportation improvements and investments in higher education.
“I want that money from the state,” O’Connell said. “Without Amazon, we wouldn’t get a penny of it.”
Opponents said Amazon didn’t need or deserve public subsidies, that its arrival would displace low-income communities, and that it had not engaged well with the community.
When Kinsey Fabrizio, a member of the Consumer Technology Association, praised Amazon’s outreach to the community, Amazon opponents in the crowd laughed raucously, drawing a rebuke from Dorsey.
Resident Ibby Han told the board that by supporting Amazon, “You’re just repeating Virginia’s history of prioritizing elites over working people.”
Officials from the local chapter of the NAACP and the regional AFL-CIO objected to the unwillingness of the online giant to sign a project labor agreement with wage and benefit safeguards for workers hired to construct the Amazon buildings.
“This request was expressed by virtually every elected official in Northern Virginia,” said Virginia Diamond of the Northern Virginia AFL-CIO.
Before the hearing opened, a couple dozen protesters rallied on the steps of the county building. A smaller number demonstrated in favor of the project.
Signs opposing Amazon read, “Affordable housing 1st, not Amazon,” and “Don’t be the opposite of Robin Hood.” Supporters wore stickers reading, “Amazon is prime for Arlington,” and carried a sign reading, “Crystal City welcomes Amazon.”
Because so many people signed up to speak, Dorsey reduced the time allowed per speaker from the normal three minutes for individuals to two minutes and from the normal five minutes for people representing organizations to four minutes.
In the four months since Arlington won a much-publicized, nationwide contest to attract the facility known as HQ2, Arlington residents have been asking questions about its impact on their neighborhoods and community.
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People have looked at the county’s five online Q&A sessions 14,000 times, and about 400 attended community events to discuss the provisions in the Amazon agreement. Board members and county staff also met with scores of civic organizations, served on multiple panels and appeared on television, online and in news articles to discuss the deal.
Both Amazon and the real estate company JBG, the main contractor for the project, have met with business groups, school leaders, 50 nonprofit groups and others. However, these sessions have not satisfied critics’ calls for an open public meeting for anyone with questions or criticisms.
Most Arlingtonians, Northern Virginians and residents of the Washington region support Amazon’s arrival, several surveys have found. Business organizations, universities and nonprofit groups came out strongly for the deal.
But a vocal group of activists has sought to block the project, saying that the county and commonwealth should not give any incentives to one of the world’s most valuable companies. They also have demanded housing and job protections for existing residents.
These opponents – including left-wing organizations and immigrant groups – felt empowered after Amazon canceled plans last month to build a headquarters facility in New York City, also with 25,000 jobs. The company withdrew after criticism of the plan from some elected leaders, unions and community activists.
Officials estimate that the Amazon project’s net fiscal impact on Arlington could be worth additional revenue of $162 million over 12 years and $392.5 million over 16 years.
The incentives agreement promises the world’s largest online retailer cash grants estimated at about $23 million if it occupies 6.05 million square feet of office space in Crystal City and Pentagon City through 2035.
The money would come from an expected increase in the hotel, motel and lodging tax paid by visitors; Amazon would get up to 15 percent of that increase, pegged to how much floor space is in active use by the company each year from 2020 to 2035.
Amazon’s offices will be located within an already established special tax district where a portion of the property tax revenue goes toward infrastructure improvements such as parks and wider sidewalks.
The incentive agreement says that half of any new revenue from that district starting in 2021 will go specifically toward improvements around the Amazon buildings for the following 10 years. That grant is worth an estimated $28 million, but the county says it’s not a grant just for Amazon because the improvements will benefit other companies in the immediate area. Amazon will have a chance to express its opinion on how the county uses the money, although the board will make the decision.
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The county also offered Amazon the possibility of using its fast, fiber-optic network connection, which would be the subject of a separate agreement if the company chooses to use it.
It’s not yet clear whether Amazon will pay the local business license tax because that tax is levied only on certain types of business, and Amazon has not yet announced which of its business units will be based in Arlington. If the company does pay the license tax, then some of its operations could be eligible for a discount of up to 72 percent under an existing program designed to attract technology companies.
While Arlington pored over the details, the Virginia General Assembly passed, and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed, an incentives package worth up to $750 million for Amazon.