Seattle leaders look to push ‘refresh’ button with Amazon

A month after Amazon’s surprise announcement it will open a second headquarters outside Seattle, some local politicians want to rebuild the city’s relationship with its largest employer.

A letter signed by a majority of Seattle City Council members, other elected officials and education leaders took an almost apologetic tone, saying to the extent Amazon’s decision “was based on Amazon feeling unwelcome in Seattle, or not being included in some of our regional decisions, we would like to hit the refresh button.”

“You have heard mixed messages from our community, whether it stems from comments in our local newspapers or comments from elected officials who have differing views and positions that are less than collaborative,” said the letter, obtained by The Seattle Times.

“This does not leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth,” added the letter, dated Oct. 13, and addressed to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and John Schoettler, the company’s global real-estate chief and public face on Seattle issues. As a salve, the officials suggest the company and government leaders collaborate more closely on issues including transportation and public safety.

Amazon’s HQ & HQ2

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and state Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, took the lead on the letter, which was signed by five of the nine City Council members.  They submitted it to be included in a regional bid for the online retailer’s second headquarters, said Joe Mirabella, spokesman for Seattle’s Office of Economic Development.

Mayor Tim Burgess is also separately putting together a package for inclusion in the regional bid, Mirabella said.

Not every local politician is on board with the conciliatory gesture.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the letter “disingenuous and craven.”

Sawant said she was stunned to see some of her colleagues suggest that “Amazon’s billionaires, including Jeff Bezos, are feeling unwelcome” in the city. Instead, Sawant said, it’s “ordinary working people, even the middle class, that is quickly getting pushed out of the city” due to skyrocketing housing costs.

An Amazon spokesman confirmed the company has received the letter, but declined to comment further. The message comes ahead of the Oct. 19 deadline for cities across North America to bid on consideration for the second headquarters.

Seattle itself isn’t bidding to host Amazon’s second headquarters, but instead is lending its support to a joint proposal by King and and Snohomish counties that suggest the company use any of a range of sites, from Everett to Bellevue and Tukwila. 

Besides Bagshaw and Palumbo, the letter was signed by councilmembers Lisa Herbold, M. Lorena Gonzalez, Rob Johnson and council president Bruce Harrell. The 25 signers also include state Sens. Reuven Carlyle and Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, state Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, and state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

“I don’t see it as an apology at all,” said Carlyle. “We have to elevate the dialogue with the largest employer, the largest company on this particular planet… the relationship is incredibly important.”

The officials signing the letter called for “a new relationship” to “realign how we live and work with you in our community.” They propose a task force with Amazon that would tackle issues of mutual benefit, including transportation, freight mobility, safety and education.

For example, the letter suggests working on improvements to worsening traffic congestion in the South Lake Union neighborhood where Amazon is based. It says a work group including local transportation agencies and a dedicated city planner should be assembled to help.

“Let’s work together to map out the current commute patterns of your employees and identify potential infrastructure and transit solutions,” said the letter.

Similar work would take place on public-safety concerns, freight mobility, the “gig economy” and public education, the letter suggests. “These ideas are just the beginning. We want to be your partners and reset the creative and economic environment in South Lake Union as well as for neighborhoods across our city and region. Our ears are wide open and we look forward to hearing from you,” the letter concludes.

Some Seattle leaders have pushed for higher taxes on Amazon and its wealthier employees. Last week, City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley proposed an annual tax of $100 per full time employee on businesses with annual gross receipts of $5 million or more. The money would pay for housing to help fight Seattle’s homelessness crisis.

That proposal has drawn criticism from local business leaders.

“If Seattle City Council members want to foster solutions-oriented partnerships with our region’s businesses, a tax on jobs… seems diametrically opposed to this goal,” said Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, in a statement Monday.

But Sawant said Monday the proposed tax should be even higher on the largest businesses like Amazon.

Earlier this year, the City Council approved a new income tax on wealthy residents in an effort to overturn Washington’s longstanding legal precedent outlawing income taxes.

To help develop its income-tax ordinance, the city hired John Burbank, director of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, who last month celebrated Amazon’s move to open a headquarters in another city as “a good thing” for Seattle. “Amazon has been a sociopathic roommate, sucking up our resources and refusing to participate in daily upkeep,” Burbank wrote in a blog post.

There has been no public indication that any of Seattle’s policies prompted Amazon’s announcement last month that the company was looking for a second home.

In the weeks that followed, some political and business leaders noted the company is often criticized as a contributor for traffic, rising housing costs, and other growing pains.

Interviews and public records describe a relationship with the city that has been cordial and often transactional, largely focused on Amazon’s massive physical expansion in South Lake Union. That covers issues like the city’s ceding of alleys to make way for Amazon’s towers, requests for the city’s help nudging stalled permits, and the occasional speaking opportunity or public event.

Still, for a company that thinks long term, some have seen a downside to being viewed as a scapegoat for Seattle’s troubles.

“One or two of my former colleagues on the (city) council often make comments that I think people in the business community have interpreted as anti-business,” Burgess said last month. “I think some, maybe at Amazon and others in the business community, have expressed some perspective and feelings that they don’t always feel welcome at City Hall.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.

Source link