Charting Through the Amazon in Arlington

County Board weighs in on potential Amazon deal.

Where will Amazon go?

Like many localities across the country, Arlington County has been positioning itself to try and become home to the second headquarters for the massive online retail brand. Plans are being put together to try and entice the corporate giant to take up residence in a county anxious to fill its vacant office space.

But at the March 17 County Board meeting, some expressed concerns that the county would go too far and undermine its value to entice Amazon. As a reminder that local politics can often look very different from the national spectrum, Spencer Chretien represented the Arlington GOP in asking that the county use its tax money for public schools and infrastructure rather than to offer incentives to major corporations.

“The county needs to release more info about negotiations with Amazon,” said Chretien. “The Arlington Way requires openness and transparency. Many other jurisdictions released detailed reports. In Maryland, there was a promised $5 billion in tax incentives. Chicago offered to let Amazon employees pay income tax to Amazon, not to the city. If Arlington offering billions in subsidies, incentives and credits to a megacorp, taxpayers deserve to know. We should focus on public schools and Metro … not throwing tax dollars at public corporations.”

Chretien’s comments on behalf of the group follows a statement made by the Arlington GOP’s Cair, Jim Presswood, on Feb. 28 on the Arlington GOP webpage: “While an Amazon headquarters would bring benefits to Arlington and the region, Arlington citizens deserve to know the cost before any deal is struck. Arlington is under great budgetary pressure from increasing school capacity needs and a broken Metro. The citizens are entitled to know if the county is offering subsidies that will ultimately result in a bill being handed to Arlington taxpayers. Creating an attractive environment for businesses and residents is a far more fair and fiscally sound approach to bring jobs to Arlington than offering sweetheart deals to specific firms.”

In response to the public comment, County Board Chair Katie Cristol expressed initial agreement with Chretien and Presswood.

“I think all of us agree with underlying sentiment,” said Cristol. “Arlington’s strong workforce, excellent public schools ... matter a lot more than incentives we could offer. Ultimately, we will release terms of any agreement. If Arlington is selected, the terms of any agreement will be subject to a public hearing. That means public comment and public vote. If not selected, we’re committed to releasing details of what had been proposed so citizens can decide for themselves.”

However, Cristol said the transparency of the process has to be mixed with the necessary confidentiality of sensitive business negotiations.

“Consistent with our own practices, Arlington doesn’t release terms of potential economic agreement with businesses during site selection process,” said Cristol. “It just makes it impossible to engage in confidential negotiations required to reach agreement.”

Other County Board members expressed agreement with Cristol.

“I don’t know what Amazon is using as their criteria for consideration, but Arlington has reached the level we are because we have made incredible investments in public education and transit and open space,” said County Board member Christian Dorsey. “There is no way we would participate in a thing that would degrade those prior investments. It wouldn’t make any sense for us to diminish what we built and hope to build in the future. We want to give people the comfort of knowing that, while we can’t speak specifically, we would not engage in a process that would degrade Arlington in the pursuit of Amazon or anyone else.”

Dorsey noted, however, that the county would still not be at liberty to disclose what the state has to offer Amazon, which is far larger than what the locality can.

County Board member John Vihstadt said the final tally on whether economic incentives are a good or bad thing is still to be determined.

“Economic incentives are controversial,” said Vihstadt. “Experts, economists, planners and so forth are divided. You can go on google and see as many opposed as in favor. It’s a tough call. The others surrounding us are offering such incentives … but at the end of the day, it’s what we are as a community that’s going to serve as greatest incentive to either locate here or stay here and expand.”

County Board member Libby Garvey urged residents to be careful when considering promises made by other localities.

“There is a lot of swirl going on nationally about what is being offered,” said Garvey. “Maryland said something about a blank check and it got withdrawn. Don’t believe everything you read in the press or everything people tell you because there’s a lot of swirl going on and a lot of people talking about things they don’t know much about as far as this topic goes.”

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