Katie Cristol speaks at Leadership Center for Excellence event

Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol speaks at a Leadership Center for Excellence event held Jan. 18, 2018 at Founders Hall on the Arlington campus of George Mason University. (Leadership Center for Excellence photo)

Arlington’s County Board chairman says that, win or lose, the local government is willing to provide residents with an accounting of any incentives it dangles in an effort to lure Amazon to the local area.

Provide it eventually, that is, though not immediately.

“There’s nothing in there that couldn’t ultimately be made public,” Katie Cristol surmised during a “Meet the Chair” event held Jan. 18, the day that Amazon announced Northern Virginia was among 20 localities on its short list for what’s being called its “HQ2” – a secondary headquarters that would bring an estimated 50,000 jobs to the community that nails it.

Northern Virginia’s proposal to Amazon includes potential sites in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the city of Alexandria, but economic-development officials across the region are being mum about specifics.

Responding to a question about Amazon tax incentives from local Republican activist Matthew Hurtt, Cristol suggested there had been little focus yet by Arlington economic-development officials in crafting potential incentives, since the first round of the Amazon selection process was more about getting to know specific communities.

“Now that we’ve cleared that first hurdle, we’re expecting more questions,” the board chairman said.

Until recent years, Arlington officials generally declined to get into bidding wars with other local jurisdictions in order to win corporate relocations (or retain firms already located in the community). But when Arlington’s office-vacancy rate zoomed upward and the Silver Line made Tysons Corner a more robust competitor, county officials changed their strategy.

Cristol, who has served on the County Board since the start of 2016 and rotated in as chairman on Jan. 2, generally has gone along with the approval of incentives – which critics have derided as corporate welfare – but said the county’s effort is not an open checkbook.

“It is limited, it is targeted, it is specific,” she said. “We’re going to expect a pretty big return on investment. That’s what allows me to sleep at night.”

When the county government agrees to economic-development incentives, a public hearing before the County Board is required in order to make the action official. While some residents turn up to voice opinions and there is an occasional dissenting voice from the board dais, the hearings usually are pro-forma, the details long since ironed out. No proposal has ever been rejected by the board.

Lee Corey, a local resident who attended the Meet the Chair event, didn’t address the Amazon situation specifically, but opined that targeted economic-development efforts could be a net positive for Arlington.

“We want to keep those young people who create companies and jobs here,” she said.

More than 230 communities formally expressed interest in becoming Seattle-based Amazon’s “HQ2” location. The 20 making the first cut include three in the local area – Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Md. – along with communities that include Denver, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Toronto is the lone prospect outside the United States.

Amazon officials, who anticipate the economic-development impact to the chosen community could reach $5 billion, suggested that while incentives may play a role in their final decision, other factors also were important.

“We want to find a city that is excited to work with us and where our customers, employees and the community can all benefit,” the company said in a statement announcing the 20 communities that will be considered.

Final selection of a site is slated by the end of the year, the company said.