I am finding out that discussing the Amazon HQ2 project in Long Island City is as treacherous as traveling down the Amazon River on a raft ─ full of wild rapids and deep trenches and home to biting amphibians. And that is just around people I love!
Let me state that I was not part of the negotiations, but by the virtue of my job, I have been fielding many inquiries since the announcement. And let’s get this out in the open; I am in favor of the Seattle-based company’s expansion in Queens. But before any rotten fruit is thrown through my office windows and negative emails flood my inbox, allow me to explain.
History shapes my opinions ─ and I am a true NYC history geek. I recently finished the second volume of Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham. The book covers 1898 to 1919, but it sheds incredible light on the changes that took place in this city in less than a generation (and at over 1,000 pages, my triceps have changed, too). It points to the fact that NYC must always reinvent itself to remain a world class city. If not, we become an artifact like Venice. Once a world class city, it is now primarily known for sinking into the sea and overpriced cappuccino. We do not want to go that route.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to 1979, when I started my career. My first task was to attract a quality drug store to southern Queens. There was none as most neighborhoods were redlined. Queensborough Plaza was notable for greasy doughnut shops and illicit sex. Commuting outbound on the E or F subway to Kew Gardens in the morning, I was often the only one in the subway car ─ though a drunk once tried to knife me, but only succeeded in slitting my New York Times down the middle. (I was ticked, as I was just about to complete the Friday crossword.) And of course, it is easy to forget the streets paved with broken glass, a mélange of car window shards and crack vials. Nostalgia just is not what it used to be.
People and businesses did not want to be here. Efforts were made to retain the borough’s great companies ─ Eagle Electric and Swingline come to mind. (Oh, how I miss that gigantic neon stapler bearing down over Sunnyside Yards!) This city once had hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs; now it has fewer than 75,000. Incentives were used to hemorrhage the flow of jobs, but in the end it was like shoveling sand against the tide. Manufacturing found greener pastures and the great smoke stacks that defined our borough disappeared. (Let’s remember what some of them left behind. Catch a whiff of Flushing River or Newtown Creek at low tide to understand the remediation that must be done). We were triumphant when Citi opened its tower ─ we thought it was harbinger of financial institutions that would jump across the East River. But the economic downturns in 1987 and 2008 put a big damper on the financial sector as our savior.
As the world’s most diverse county, we need a diverse economy. We still have manufacturing, albeit on a smaller scale and hopefully more environmentally friendly. Citi did beget other financial organizations, such as the UN Credit Union. Tourism, which employs more than 50,000 people in Queens, has played a key role as people flock for an authentic NYC experience. (Try to beat our variety of dumplings: momos, gnocchi, kreplach, empanadas, and other carb-encased treats.) The movie studios have also made our economic base fatter, bringing with them a touch of glamour (Was that Bill Murray dribbling souvlaki sauce down his chin at that place on Ditmars Boulevard?)
Throughout our history, NYC adapts. We always have. From an oyster trading post, to the country’s biggest port, to a manufacturing center of everything from buggy whips to pianos (which we still do, thank you Steinway!), to the financiers who traded under a buttonwood tree and went on to open offices in counting houses, to cultural arts and mass media, we need to be cutting edge. Over the last decades, technology has become that edge, and it cuts across every sector (though possibly not buggy whips).
For the last 30 years, we’ve heard about the technology centers in Boston, Palo Alto, and oddly enough Omaha (those non-threatening Midwest accents I suppose). Then the Flatiron District made a name for itself, as did parts of Brooklyn, as pockets of tech. The placement of Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, which a motorist can only reach from Queens, has boosted the presence of technology as a legitimate and growing sector in our economy.
Why did Amazon chose Queens? For a company that wants to be at the intersection of technology, diversity, and a well-skilled labor pool in any sector, the choice is apparent. Okay, my loved ones say, “Do they really need the billions of dollars that could go to rebuilding our infrastructure, schools, and hospitals? A helipad for God’s sake? I need a helipad on 46th Street because the 7 train stinks.” My response is that most of the economic development incentives are as-of-right and/or in the form of tax credits, not cold cash. They’re tax credits on new jobs, not retained jobs. It can be considered seed money ─ yes on a colossal scale. (Maybe this is a good time to think about how we hand out incentives as we are in a different environment now.) But look at it this way; if 25,000 jobs are created that pay an average of $150,000 each per year, that is an annual payroll of $3,750,000,000. The incentives are “paid back” by spreading a lot of money through the city and putting a lot of bread on a lot of tables. And these are new jobs that will add to our tax base.
In addition, Amazon has agreed to help with schools, job fairs, and other community benefits. This is where we need to take a strong and tough stance. Job fairs and resume writing workshops are sweet, but they need to do much more. Skilled training must be memorialized into the agreement ─ especially for communities that have been sidelined as development booms around them. (Queensbridge, Ravenswood, Astoria Houses, and just about every disenfranchised community.) This is how they can make a difference, and by doing so, be a model for future economic development. As much effort must go into this as any other part of their agenda.
It is also time take a hard line on infrastructure improvements financed in part by companies that want ─ and need ─ better transit, schools, and health care if they are going to continue to attract a qualified workforce. The 7 line does stink and improvements need to be accelerated. East side access for the LIRR will be a great benefit, but we need to develop a way to coordinate our mass transit with seamless transfers so residents and workers in Queens benefit just as much as suburban commuters. Quality education from entry level to high tech skills must be available.
The LIC site must be designed carefully. Twenty-five thousand employees are a lot, and they are going to need goods and services. Savvy local entrepreneurs will benefit. We need to ensure they are trained to provide the goods and services even Amazon employees cannot buy on Amazon.
We are New York. We welcome, we absorb, and we need to make Amazon accommodate us.
Queens Borough Hall
120-55 Queens Boulevard, Suite 309
Kew Gardens, NY 11424