photo: Robert Scoble
While Amazon's penchant for secrecy is nothing new, the company may have reached a new high, or low, during its ongoing search for a home for its planned second headquarters. The New York Times has found that in many cases, even elected officials in the cities that have been named the 20 HQ2 finalists have no idea what their respective cities offered Amazon.
Many of the bids were put together by "private Chamber of Commerce affiliates or economic development groups that aren't required to make their negotiations public." These same groups are frequently not subject to Freedom of Information Act or state open-records requests, and taxpayers in most of the finalist cities may learn what was promised only if their city ends up being chosen. But based on the handful of bids that have become public, there are billions of dollars of public money at stake.
In April, Maryland's state legislature approved an incentive package worth $8.5 billion, while in New Jersey, local and state officials were given approval to offer Amazon some $7 billion as part of the Newark bid. The details of the Newark bid came to light "only after a citizen filed a lawsuit," and the Times reported that officials in several of the finalist cities are currently working hard to quash efforts for greater transparency.
Jared Evans, a member of the City-County Council in Indianapolis, Ind., told the Times that "absolutely nothing" about any financial incentives the city offered Amazon has been shared with him. Leslie Pool, a member of the Austin City Council, likewise said she knows nothing of what Austin, Tex., offered. And Brad Lander, a member of New York's City Council, also has not seen his city's proposal.
According to the Times, many of its own requests for information regarding HQ2 proposals met with similar responses--that is to say, refusals to divulge anything. But in something of a farcical turn, "when officials in Montgomery County, Md., did respond to a request for information on their bid, they delivered, among other items, a 10-page document of incentives--with every single line of text redacted."
As cities continue to race to the bottom in attempts to woo Amazon, there are those advising caution. Jenny Durkan, the mayor of Seattle, Wash., warned at the U.S. Conference of Mayors this summer that HQ2 will likely bring significant downsides along with economic growth, citing her city's astronomical housing costs and the fact that in Seattle there are "4,000 homeless people on the streets every night."
And Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, resigned earlier this year from the board of directors of Toronto Global, which was involved with Toronto's bid. The lack of transparency, he said, was "galling," and he warned that when taxpayers learn how much they're on the hook for, "there is going to be hell to pay."