As Amazon and Seattle fight over taxes and housing, what can the Triangle learn?

Where could Amazon's HQ2 end up if it came to the Triangle?

From RTP to Chatham Park,Triangle leaders have several locations in mind as they woo Amazon's second headquarters to the area. Here's a look at some of the prospects.
Up Next
From RTP to Chatham Park,Triangle leaders have several locations in mind as they woo Amazon's second headquarters to the area. Here's a look at some of the prospects.

The uproar over the influence Amazon has yielded in Seattle's efforts to curb a rising affordable housing problem has renewed a debate in the Triangle over whether the region could wind up facing the same issues if Amazon ends up locating its second headquarters here.

In a face-off with Amazon and other large businesses, the Seattle City Council on Monday blinked, and cut almost in half a new tax on local corporations that the businesses had fought.

The tax, which will charge large businesses $275 per full-time worker annually, rather than the $500 proposed, is aimed at raising money to pay for affordable housing and homeless services, which have become a hot issue in one of the country's fastest-growing cities.

The debate over the bill — around who should pay to help solve a housing affordability crisis amid a booming economy — has attracted attention from across the country, especially in communities that are still vying to lure Amazon's new headquarters to their cities.

In an open letter to the City of Seattle, more than 50 elected officials from across the country supported the tax and criticized Amazon’s resistance to it. No officials from North Carolina signed the letter, though several local officials said they weren't aware of its existence.

“By threatening Seattle over this tax, Amazon is sending a message to all of our cities: we play by our own rules,” the letter said.

Amazon, which has around 45,000 employees in Seattle, vociferously lobbied against the bill, threatening to halt the construction of a new 17-story tower and publicly questioning its future growth in the city.

Amazon vice president Drew Herdener said the company was disappointed by the council's decision to introduce "a tax on jobs” and added the company is "apprehensive about the future created by the council's hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here," according to the Associated Press.

In the Triangle, which is one of the 20 finalists for HQ2, there is already debate about whether landing Amazon would be a positive or negative for the region. Detractors worry that the region, already experiencing fast growth and rising home prices, can't handle the economic ripples of 50,000 new jobs, while proponents view HQ2 as a springboard to making the region a marquee technology hub.

If Amazon were to select Raleigh for HQ2, Raleigh City Council Member David Cox said he doesn’t think the company would have any extra influence in the city, though he noted the company would bring a dramatic change to the region.

“As far as I am concerned Amazon would not, for me anyway, exert any undue influences,” he said. “I don’t see how that relationship would be with any different than our relationship with other companies.”

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said it would be hard to speculate what kind of corporate citizen Amazon would be, especially without ever having a conversation with them.

But "every business that comes here, community relationships are developed and you do things together and that comes to great outcomes. I can’t really comment about what a company I haven’t talked to would do," she said.

Adrienne Cole, CEO of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said the Triangle has always benefited from strong engagement by the business community.

"Any time you have a major employer in your community they are going to be a part of the discussion and they are going to help shape the community on transit and education," she said.

Amazon officials visited the area in March and were shown sites in downtown Raleigh and Research Triangle Park.

Wendy Jacobs, the chair of Durham County Commissioners, said that while she wouldn't comment on the Amazon situation, the private sector needs to be a partner in addressing the challenges of growth.

“In general we’re certainly, right now, looking at the private sector as partners for us to look at how to address challenges we’re facing related to transportation and education and housing. That’s the approach we’re taking here,” Jacobs said.

She added that while the county needs to prepare residents for jobs when they come to Durham, “when businesses come here and invest in infrastructure and build buildings and expand, that’s our property tax revenue. We depend on employers, not just the jobs they create, but the investments they’re making are really our property tax base to fund our schools,” Jacobs said.

Members from the Raleigh City Council, along with the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, recently visited Seattle to see how growth from its large companies, like Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and Boeing, has affected it.

Raleigh City Council member Nicole Stewart, who was on that trip, said that Raleigh still has the chance to address growth issues before they get to the contentious point they have in Seattle.

"It’s a different space and a different set of challenges," Stewart said. "We have a real opportunity if they come here, or if any company comes here, to view them as a partner and solve these problems before we get a Seattle-type problem."

Jacob Rogers, CEO of Triangle Community Coalition, said the Triangle is in a position similar to the one facing Seattle decades ago. He blamed the city's current situation on poor planning.

“At one point Seattle was very hungry for business and they wanted the growth,” Rogers said. “They did very poor planning and now they are paying 3 times, 4 times the cost ... This is where Raleigh has the advantage. There are ways to get in front of this before they get to that (Seattle) level of insanity.”

Rogers noted that Seattle just now passed a transit bond (something Wake County did in 2016) and has let its homeless problem swell without action. He said that Seattle’s homeless population is almost three times what Raleigh’s is. Seattle's population is about 704,000 compared to Raleigh's 459,000.

But while the Triangle might not be seeing Seattle levels of growth, it is growing at a rapid pace and could easily face the same problems as Seattle, said Karen Rindge, executive director of Wake Up Wake County, an advocacy group.

"We should look at an example like Seattle and recognize what we should be doing now to not get to that crisis of a situation," Rindge said. "We easily could get to that point. Just in the past five years if you look at the price of housing it has really escalated and is hurting people, and even with a public transit plan (passed in 2016), it's a 10-year plan ... (and) in many ways, we are already behind."

However, not every elected leader in the region holds as optimistic a view that the region could positively shape the growth Amazon would bring.

In an interview, Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said that while cities in North Carolina would be preempted by the state legislature from passing a tax like Seattle did, the discourse over the city’s tax “brings up a lot of issues people are concerned about with companies like Amazon coming to the Triangle,” she said. “We don’t have the infrastructure for that many people coming here so fast."

"Amazon coming to the Triangle area would have a lot of negative residual consequences. No one wants to say no to 50,000 jobs," Johnson said, but she is concerned about the impact of so many people needing resources and putting strains on the infrastructure.

"I wouldn’t want Durham or anywhere else to make big promises to them to get them to come. That would be self defeating," Johnson said. "I think that growth and development are often double-edged: in some ways it's good and in some ways it creates a lot of really serious problems, and the consequences fall on those already marginalized and disadvantaged."

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes
Related stories from Durham Herald Sun