Facing stiff opposition, Jeff Bezos knew when to get out of town.
Recently, Amazon withdrew from a deal to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens that would have brought 25,000 high-paying jobs over 10 years to New York, in exchange for close to $3 billion in tax breaks and subsidies. Amazon’s withdrawal is, by any measure, a catastrophic outcome to its extremely hyped search for a second headquarters, or HQ2. Bezos decided to conduct the search in September 2017, when Amazon was facing increasing animosity in its home town.
For Bezos and other Amazon execs, the HQ2 search was partly a way to gauge public sentiment in each potential city, so they could avoid the problems they faced in Seattle, according to a person familiar with the process. For them to not have anticipated a political backlash to this kind of incentive package, when it sits right in the backyard of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was naïve at best. There was other relevant history that should have scared Amazon: New York has repeatedly stiffed the entreaties of another gigantic retailer, Walmart, which doesn’t have any stores in the five boroughs, despite repeated attempts over many decades.
Predictably, opposition got louder after Amazon announced its plans. Anti-Amazon activists were already well organized from Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and armed with lists of constituent emails and telephone numbers. The New York tabloids sharpened their knives. “Queens Ransom” blared the cover of the New York Post, with an illustration of Bezos holding bags of cash and smiling villainously as he departed via the infamous helipad.
Polls showed strong support for Amazon in Long Island City. Residents backed the deal 58 percent to 35 percent, according to a poll conducted in early February by Siena College. But opponents had leverage: The subsidy package, or part of it, required the authorization of the state’s three-member Public Authorities Control Board; a major critic of the project, Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, was nominated to the board. Critics were also raising issues, emphatically, on TV and online, that Amazon would rather not address, such as the company’s opposition to unions in its fulfillment centers and its sale of facial recognition technology to government agencies like ICE.
None of this surprised longtime observers of New York politics. But Amazon, it seems, didn’t have the appetite for the protracted public battle, or the prospect that it could be scapegoated by every subway delay, pizza rat, traffic jam, or housing eviction in Queens from now to eternity.