County Officials, Activists Say Amazon Executives Have Failed to Engage with Arlington Community

by Alex Koma February 20, 2019 at 1:30 pm 0

Amazon can feel a bit omnipresent around Arlington these days, but, in one key way, local leaders and activists say the company has been missing in action.

The tech giant sent a few emissaries to Pentagon City in mid-November, as politicians from around the state and the region congregated to hail the company’s massive Arlington expansion. Since then, however, people closely watching the Amazon debate say they’ve seen barely any evidence that the company’s executives have shown their faces in the community.

And in the wake of Amazon’s sudden, splashy decision to cancel plans for a new headquarters in New York City over local opposition to the project, officials see a clear need for the company to build stronger in-person relationships in Arlington.

“I don’t really understand why they’re not out here… they need to have their coming out party, if you will,” County Board member Erik Gutshall told ARLnow. “Without some really clear rationale or justification from them, I would be very, very hesitant to vote on the incentive agreement without them having had some meaningful engagement in the community. In fact, I couldn’t see us voting on this without that happening first.”

The Board is set to take up that $23 million incentive package on March 16, after delaying a planned February vote on the matter, leaving just a few weeks for the company to meet those concerns.

“We should have a dialogue with them on this, and the community’s legitimate concerns, and it should be a dialogue soon,” said Board member Matt de Ferranti.

For its part, Amazon says it’s done plenty of work on the ground to build strong partnerships in Arlington. Spokeswoman Jill Kerr said in a statement that the company “has met with stakeholders in the community to discuss plans for our second headquarters in National Landing and we will continue to do so into the future.”

The company has also joined the county’s Chamber of Commerce to work with local business owners. Scott Pedowitz, the Chamber’s government affairs manager, says the company has “been very active since joining” and sent its representatives to a variety of the group’s gatherings.

“Earlier this month, we convened a meeting of over 50 local nonprofit organizations with Amazon’s head of community engagement,” Pedowitz wrote in an email. “It was a great dialogue and we’ve heard directly from several of our local nonprofits about follow-up.”

But activists opposed to the project argue that the company can’t simply work with the business community and Arlington’s professional class, when Amazon’s arrival threatens so many low- and middle-income people in the area. Expert opinions are split on just how much the company’s 25,000 highly paid workers will drive up rent prices in the county, but the changes to the housing market will almost certainly force some people to leave their homes.

“We’re being sold all this stuff about how Amazon wants to be a good neighbor and they love our community, but they haven’t spent a second with the community,” said Roshan Abraham, a longtime Amazon critic and a leader of the progressive group Our Revolution Arlington. “Maybe they’ve had meetings with the Arlington Chamber, and they think that’s the community. But they haven’t spoken to the rest of us.”

In all of the many community meetings focused on the project he’s attended over the last few months, anti-Amazon organizer Alex Howe points out that “the only time I’ve ever seen an Amazon official is in Richmond.” And that was when state lawmakers were debating a $750 million incentive package for the company, which Gov. Ralph Northam ultimately approved earlier this month.

Gutshall did suggest that perhaps Amazon was “distracted” with the opposition it was facing in New York, where city officials called company executives in for heated hearings on the project. However, Abraham reasons that the company has seen no need to make its case to skeptics in Arlington because local leaders have so aggressively pushed the project on their own.

“They haven’t had to speak to us because the County Board has been doing their work for them,” Abraham said. “In New York, politicians pressured them and Amazon was put in a position where they had to speak to the community. No one’s putting that pressure on them here.”

Yet de Ferranti and Gutshall say they’ve both urged the company to engage in Arlington. Gutshall says his consistent message to Amazon officials has been that “the Board and the community are expecting you to join the community, and if you’re going to do that, you need to show up.”

However, de Ferranti says he is concerned that activists opposed to the company’s presence in the county would turn any community meeting into a “shouting match” rather than a constructive dialogue.

“I want to have a real conversation on this, not a chance for people to demagogue,” de Ferranti said.

Abraham says that sort of stance “totally baffles me,” arguing that the Board “shouldn’t be afraid of how the community might respond to Amazon executives being here.” Gutshall also noted that “even our most contentious town halls on this haven’t been abominable.”

“You don’t have to engage with the only purpose of trying to change somebody’s mind,” Gutshall said. “But if you have a dialogue and if it’s done in a civil way, it’s healthy. It’s not necessarily everyone singing ‘kumbaya’ all of a sudden, but it’s important to have those conversations.”

Gutshall says the company has assured him that it has “imminent” plans to start holding community meetings, even though he’s seen no evidence of specific plans just yet.

Pedowitz points out that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is organizing an event titled “A Regional Conversation with Amazon,” scheduled for George Mason’s Virginia Square campus tomorrow night (Thursday). The event will convene “elected officials, government executives, and business and community leaders” for a meeting with Amazon representatives to “discuss plans to become a bigger part of our diverse, dynamic and growing region.”

But that event is described as an “invitation-only” gathering, and does not appear publicly on the group’s website — a Washington Post reporter tweeting out a link to an internal event description seems to be the first public reference to the meeting.

An organizer of the event did not respond to a request for comment on whether the gathering is open to the public or the press.

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