After critics spent the week pouncing on the landmark, incentive-rich deal to share Amazon’s new “HQ2” base with suburban Washington, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio staunchly defended the deal as a bridge to the city’s future.
In a half-hour interview with WNYC during his weekly slot on the public radio station’s Brian Lehrer Show (full audio is below), de Blasio repeatedly pointed to the scale and impact of the deal to locate a new headquarters in Long Island City. The burgeoning section of Queens lies just across the East River from Manhattan. Amazon has pledged to spend $5 billion on the sites, and tens of thousands of jobs.
“The scale is important here,” the mayor said. “We’ve never heard of a single transaction that’s brought in between 25,000 and 40,000 new jobs. It is far, far beyond anything we’ve seen previously.” De Blasio said “very explicit conversations” happened with Amazon about the need to improve the diversity of tech workers, who tend overall to be overwhelmingly male, white or Asian (and not representative of New York’s other large minority populations).
“This is not about the same old folks getting good jobs,” he said. “This is actually, explicitly, for us about providing those jobs to folks who have not had an opportunity in the tech community.”
Critics of the deal, including many state, local and federal officials, insist it will starve the city of tax dollars and draw workers making an average of $100,000 to a section of the city that is historically working-class. Instead of handing out tax breaks to Amazon that could reach $2 billion, they say, the city should direct those resources to the crumbling subway system, affordable housing and education.
“This is an environment where a lot of people believe in equality and corporate responsibility,” the mayor said of his city. “I think over the years there’s going to be a lot of positive pressure on them to meet those kinds of standards.”
Lehrer asked why the HQ2 bid, which was co-ordinated with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, bypassed the public comment and deliberation that is customary for large development proposals. “There is going to be a public process,” he said. But the HQ2 effort is “so big, so complex that it has to be a different kind of process.
“Had we said to Amazon, ‘You’re going to be subject to a two-year process that we don’t know the outcome of,’ it would have been very easy for them to say, ‘Well, it’s been nice working with you,'” de Blasio said. “This was not like any other economic development opportunity that we have ever had. … We were not going to let them get away.”
The decision by Amazon to set up shop in the city could stimulate the creation of up to half a million new tech jobs over the long term, de Blasio said. City officials projecting out 25 years estimate that $13.5 billion in tax revenue will be generated for the city once the incentives elapse. New York can direct those proceeds to various needs, the mayor said.
Civic history — in New York and elsewhere — is littered with cases of optimistic local leaders being steamrolled by profit-hungry entities who take more than they give in development schemes. (The Olympic Games and professional sports teams offer vivid examples.) The mayor, who kept asserting his progressive bona fides during the interview (comparing tech favorably with Wall Street, for example), said he understands that legacy is hard for New Yorkers to ignore. “There’s a lot of reason to be cynical,” de Blasio conceded. “The history should make people queasy.”
Here is the full audio of the segment: