In passing its income-tax proposal, the Seattle City Council essentially said, “We are willing to reduce opportunities for all citizens by passing this punitive tax.”
AMAZON’S announcement that it would seek a second headquarters — HQ2 — outside Seattle sent shock waves through the Puget Sound region. But should anyone be that surprised? When politicians and supporters focus more on blaming businesses and entrepreneurs for every issue under the sun instead of working collaboratively to create growth and opportunity for everyone, what’s the incentive to stay?
Meanwhile, within hours of the announcement, cities like Denver, Chicago, Austin, Toronto and St. Louis hit the Twittersphere eagerly wooing Amazon. The St. Louis Cardinals even got in on the action: “We have a PRIME location for you … !” they tweeted.
And why wouldn’t these cities compete? Amazon has 40,000 jobs in Seattle while its investments here have created another 50,000 indirect jobs. The company has invested $3.7 billion in infrastructure, paid billions of dollars in taxes directly (and their employees pay billions more), and, just last year, Amazon employees and their guests booked 233,000 hotel nights in and around downtown. And, Amazon’s leadership in areas including e-commerce, cloud computing and voice communication (Alexa, Echo), attracts a diverse group of talented people to our community.
Beyond these contributions, Amazon and its employees are active community participants including supporting with their time, skills and financial resources countless local nonprofit organizations that help create better opportunities for many other residents. A few weeks ago, I spent the afternoon at an event organized by the Greater Foundation, hosted by Amazon volunteers at headquarters. The goal of the gathering was to introduce high school students from urban neighborhoods to the opportunities created by entrepreneurship and innovation. It was fantastic and life changing.
Given all of this, one might expect our local elected leaders to seek to partner with Amazon and other job creators. Instead, many Seattle City Council members have been openly hostile, pushing policies that match their anti-business rhetoric. No wonder in its request for proposal Amazon specifically states it hopes to have “elected officials eager and willing to work with the company.”
An example of this unproductive relationship is the passage of an income tax by the Seattle City Council. Proponents chanted “Tax the Rich” around town during the debate leading up to the vote. The tax clearly targets higher wage earners at companies like Amazon, but will also capture small businesses and families in its net. The clear message: We don’t like you, we don’t want you here, and we are willing to reduce opportunities for all citizens by passing this punitive tax.
Amazon and the other companies and citizens benefiting from Seattle’s record-low unemployment and economic growth also need many types of talented people, transportation infrastructure, affordable housing at different price points and other core needs for growth and development. And our government, civic and business leaders need to create a strategy that meets the needs of our whole community while prioritizing how best to invest the ever-increasing tax revenues that this growth generates. But read between the lines of Amazon’s messaging this week: “We are looking for a location with strong local and regional talent — particularly in software development and related fields — as well as a stable and business-friendly environment to continue hiring and innovating on behalf of our customers.” It is clear that a constant barrage of negative attacks on business will not lead to a winning economic development strategy.
Time will tell what, if any, lessons Seattle community leaders will learn and act on as a result of the Amazon announcement. We are incredibly lucky to have great companies in Seattle — Amazon, Starbucks, Weyerhaeuser, Expedia, Tableau, F5, and others along with major offices of Google, Facebook, GE, Dell/EMC and more that create good jobs and long-term economic development for all. But these great companies don’t have to be in Seattle, and our local elected leaders, especially those on the City Council, need to remember that companies have choices and actions have consequences.