Borrowing from Bob Dylan: You didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Given the choice between partnering with one of the world’s largest companies or delaying a decision at the behest of a noisy but not necessarily large band of critics, Arlington County Board members on March 16 voted unanimously to approve an economic-development package to land Amazon’s “HQ2” and its expected billions in economic impact to Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard.
[Related commentary: Vote went as predicted. CLICK HERE.]
The vote cements a deal that originated last fall, when Amazon officials announced they would split HQ2 operations between Arlington and New York City.
The New York plan has since been abandoned, but Arlington is looking forward to a “catalyzing and transformative partnership” with Amazon, County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey said after three hours of public testimony and an almost equal amount of discussion among board members prior to the vote.
In Arlington, Amazon plans to occupy at least 4 million square feet of office space, and perhaps twice that much, in a deal county officials say represents $2.5 billion in economic investment. In return, the county government will provide subsidies of $23 million to $28 million over a dozen years, and will ramp up investment in transportation and housing improvements.
County leaders say the subsidies represent a drop in the bucket compared to what Amazon’s presence will bring to the county.
“Crystal City and Pentagon City have been in distress” over the past decade, Dorsey said, likening the Route 1 commercial corridors to “an engine not firing on all cylinders” in which “all of Arlington suffers.”
Opinion among the more than 100 speakers at the hearing, predictably, was divided:
• “It’s an exciting day,” said Courthouse resident and Arlington business owner Joe Prentice, who said the agreement with Amazon would prove “a powerful statement that Arlington is open for business.”
• “This incentive agreement is a good deal for Amazon, but not necessarily for Arlington,” countered Kirit Mookerjie, who opposes the deal. “Amazon does what’s best for Amazon.”
• “Cynicism [about the deal] is shared by just about everyone,” said Dan Shuhler, a 13-year county resident who opposes the plan. “If the interests of the working class conflict with the interests of the billionaires that run Amazon, the billionaires will win.”
• “Change never comes without its pain points,” said Nora Dweck-McMullen, whose family owns properties across Arlington and who supports the plan. “Arlington moves forward with the times rather than remaining stagnant.”
Overall, the hearing – though occasionally noisy – was civil, although County Board members at 6:40 p.m. retreated off the dais when a protester raised a profanity-laden ruckus as the vote was about to take place. They returned 10 minutes later to vote and wrap up the proceedings.
Although County Board members limited speakers to two minutes apiece (compared to three minutes in most public hearings), Dorsey intimated early in the meeting that no matter how many speakers turned up, the board probably would take action rather than defer a decision.
“We have pretty good stamina and are prepared to be here all night,” he said at the outset.
County-government staff supported the incentive package, saying the incoming workers would replace the 24,000 jobs lost in Crystal City over the past two decades through departures of federal agencies for less expensive locales across the region.
“I would never have recommended this agreement to you for one minute if I thought its adoption would harm this community,” County Manager Mark Schwartz told County Board members at the start of a lengthy public hearing.
(Approval of the incentive package doesn’t relieve Amazon of going through the county government’s sometimes arduous regulatory process for construction of new buildings and improvements to existing ones.)
The General Assembly earlier this year passed, and Gov. Northam signed, legislation providing a much larger economic-incentive package to Amazon, one that could top $750 million if a series of benchmarks are met.
Most Northern Virginia legislators supported the state package. “I believe it is a huge net plus for Virginia,” Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th) said of Amazon’s arrival during a recent forum.
Nearly 240 communities formally expressed interest in becoming Seattle-based Amazon’s HQ2. The 20 making the first cut in early 2018 included three in the local area – Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Md. – along with communities like Denver, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Toronto.
Throughout the selection process, some activist groups complained that Arlington officials weren’t being forthcoming with the promises it was making to Amazon in an effort to lure the online retailer. Arlington officials replied that they were prohibited from doing so until any deal was finalized, and said that the public would have its say in a public hearing. But by the time the public hearing occurred, neither the county government nor Amazon appeared eager to open the package up for significant revision.
Groups antagonistic to the plan were largely on the fringes of the local political scene, including Democratic Socialists of America, the Arlington Green Party and Our Revolution Arlington. Arlington Republicans in 2018 also made noise about the lack of transparency, but the GOP also is largely shut out of the corridors of power in the local area.
Among those attending the hearing was Michael Dowell, who lives in the Aurora Highlands community adjacent to Crystal City.
Despite reservations about some parts, Dowell said he supported the economic-incentive plan, but pressed county officials to take seriously the need for transportation improvements to fuel economic growth.
“It all starts with getting that infrastructure correct – [it is] a vital part of the overall plan,” he said.
Another major concern of some includes the impact of the development on Arlington’s already overcrowded (and most expensive in Northern Virginia) school system. The cost to educate those additional students could run into the millions of dollars per year.
Arlington partnered with the city of Alexandria in wooing Amazon; while the office workers largely will come to Arlington, part of the deal includes higher-education upgrades that will be centered in Alexandria (although the Arlington campus of George Mason University also is slated to benefit). Local officials took to calling the planned Amazon campus “National Landing,” but that attempt at branding seems to have fizzled with a public that is sticking with “Crystal City.”
Ahead of Saturday’s meeting, a poll commissioned by a group supporting the effort suggests broad support in the county and regionally for the arrival of the online giant.
Polling conducted for the Greater Washington Partnership showed 65 percent of respondents across the region support the move, with 12 percent opposed. Among Arlington residents polled, support was measured at 74 percent, 12 percent opposed.
The poll, which surveyed registered voters throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, showed that 76 percent of respondents agree that Amazon’s decision to locate its new headquarters in Crystal City is a win for the region.
“This data puts numbers behind what we’ve been hearing across the region for months – people in the capital region are excited that Amazon is coming here and recognize the opportunity to drive growth, create new jobs and diversify our regional economy,” said Jason Miller, CEO of the partnership.
Over the coming year, about 500 Amazon jobs are expected to come to Arlington. They will be the first wave of what is expected to be a gradual ramp-up over the next decade. Most of the hiring is expected to be done within the Washington region, which could blunt a massive influx from out of the area.
But in anticipation of what’s to come, housing values in the immediate areas around the planned Amazon campus are seeing a bump up in prices, and according to the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, some homeowners are holding off in selling to see how high the market might go.
With the state and local deals now in place, the effort will transition from approving them to making them work for all parties.
“The hard work has only begun,” Arlington’s county manager said.