SEATTLE — Strolling through the bustling construction zone of Amazon's urban campus in Seattle, you instantly recognize the charm offensive the company has aimed at its hometown. "Banistas" at two outdoor stands offer bananas to employees and passers-by — a visual cue to Amazon's smiley logo.
Most American cities would do back flips to have a jobs juggernaut like Amazon.com Inc. in their midst. After all, the company will soon fill more than 10 million square feet of office space in a place where it now employs more than 30,000 people.
But Seattle is not like other places. Locals resent the enormous traffic problems, soaring housing prices and building frenzy that have accompanied this bonanza, all of which cause jitters about inequality in a town that sees itself as egalitarian.
For decades, Seattle was a city that worked. People could travel across town without having an anxiety attack. They could park near a destination. Not so much anymore. The tech and web industry expansion has clogged roadways, changing the way the place functions. Or doesn't.
True, millions of dollars in donations for various endeavors are nothing to sneeze at.
It is Amazon that is often singled out for Seattleites' wrath, even as the company boasts that a number of employees at its sprawling campus on the northern edge of downtown walk or bike to work. If you ask who has the better deal in the uneasy relationship between e-commerce giant and "superstar city." the company holds the larger end of the stick.
Long standoffish, Amazon is trying to change its image with worthwhile and sizable efforts.
Just this week, it announced plans to permanently house more than 200 homeless people in one of its new buildings, probably the company's most enduring gift yet to the city. Amazon earlier lent an old hotel scheduled for future development to the same nonprofit group that serves homeless women, children and families.
CEO Jeff Bezos's family recently donated $35 million to Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, on top of earlier gifts of $30 million. Amazon gave $10 million toward a new University of Washington computer science and engineering building.
But Amazon is not yet known for substantial charitable work. "I don't see Amazon's aspirational goal for being a philanthropic leader for the region," said former Mayor Norm Rice. "It's still forming."
To use one yardstick, the company lacks an employee-match giving program. Having one would alter some sentiments, said Michele Hasson, fundraising consultant.
True, millions of dollars in donations for various endeavors are nothing to sneeze at, but a more meaningful act might involve another project — one that seems to acknowledge the accusations that Amazon plays a role in perpetuating income inequality.
The company has announced it will provide space and equipment for five restaurants catering to employees and the public, to be managed by a nonprofit called FareStart. The goal is to train entry-level food-service workers so they can land higher-paying jobs.
"They say the 1,000 mile journey begins with a single step, and that is probably the right magnitude," said labor economist Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington, referring to the worker-training program.
But, Vigdor continued, "Realistically, this will probably help a few dozen people in a nation where we have millions living in poverty. They are doing their work in Seattle, but if you ask where has Amazon and technology change destroyed jobs, Amazon and electronic commerce can be blamed for the disruption of millions of retail jobs."
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in Seattle — Photo: Ken Lambert/TNS/ZUMA
Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn tapped into the bountiful local angst with his recently announced campaign to reclaim his old job under the banner of "Keep Seattle." Keep Seattle what? Fill in the blank. The intention is the way it used to be.
Amazon is sensitive to the implicit criticism. In 2015, John Schoettler, the company's vice president of global real estate and facilities, ventured out of Amazon's shell far enough to lead the local business chamber.
"I believe we are trying to change," Schoettler told a public forum last month. "We are a very bashful company in many respects." He later added: "We are never going to please everybody, that's an impossible thing, and we will die trying to do that. […] We want to be a good neighbor, a good contributor."
Amazon is Seattle's largest property taxpayer and private employer, and it pays its employees here pretty well. The accompanying construction boom and hiring spree have boosted the broader vibrant economy, which has seen 99,000 new jobs added in the last seven years. Thirty percent of them are in tech.
On the other side of the ledger, the runaway growth has made the place less affordable for longtime residents and compounded the income divide. At the same time, Amazon and its top employees benefit from a favorable tax climate. Neither the state nor the city has an income tax, though a few mayoral candidates and the city council would like to change that.
I think Amazon gets the best part of the deal.
In the 1990s, locals growled that another Seattle-area company, Microsoft Inc., was crowding roadways, diminishing livability and being aloof. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said then he was building his company and would get to philanthropy eventually. He did so in dramatic fashion.
Amazon was fortunate to locate in an almost ready-made neighborhood, where Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen owned much land and once envisioned a large downtown park. Voters said no to the park; they would have had to pay some of the costs.
So the neighborhood is becoming an innovation and tech center, with Amazon joining the Gates Foundation and many other health and research — a veritable STEM City.
Despite the thumbs-down on the park, voters approve most tax measures. Yes, to billions of dollars of transportation improvements. Yes, to more low-income housing. Yes, to greater park spending generally.
Longtime residents feel they have paid for infrastructure that Amazon is capitalizing on. Historian Knute Berger, for one, feels that Amazon bears major responsibility for much of the rapid change, even if he doesn't blame the company for all the ill effects.
"I think Amazon gets the best part of the deal," Berger said. "I lived here before Amazon. It was a great city. Now I think it is a city with big problems."
It's hard to sneer at a company building a high-tech tomorrow town and trying to make amends on the home front. But the many overwhelming impacts of rampant transformation deserve a very Seattle retort: Your efforts are noticeable and welcome — but you have a ways to go.
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