What did the Austin Chamber offer Amazon?

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A photo of Council Member Leslie Pool graces the top of a New York Times article on the hush-hush offers that cities all over the country are making to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to town. Pool is highlighted as one of many local officials who are concerned about the incentives that Chambers of Commerce are offering on behalf of cities behind closed doors. It’s a really bizarre system that I was completely oblivious to until just a few months ago. Says the NYT:

A primary reason for the information blackout is that, in many cases, the bids were handled by local private Chamber of Commerce affiliates or economic development groups that aren’t required to make their negotiations public. Many of the groups are also not covered by Freedom of Information Act or state open-records requests.

I’m not clear on the legalities, but I can’t imagine that the city would be on the hook to provide Amazon incentives unless it was publicly approved by City Council. The mayor said as much back in March.

“The chamber, they do this all the time for businesses big and small,” Adler said. “The chamber continues to have to give advice (to Amazon), but the chamber doesn’t get to make any offers. The City Council can’t authorize any offers without public notice. I think that when it’s appropriate to have those conversations, the city needs to get involved if it reaches that level.”

What is also encouraging is that Adler, who is the only member of Council privy to the offer’s details, has said that the city is not offering financial incentives. But I suppose that depends how one defines “financial incentives.” Adler could be using a relatively narrow definition that refers to property tax exemptions or direct subsidies but that leaves the door open to other indirect subsidies, such as infrastructure projects aimed at serving Amazon or fee waivers that would exempt the company from paying for the thousands of man-hours that city staff will spend reviewing its development.

Whatever Adler and the Chamber offered, however, they hopefully have enough sense to know that they are going to have a very hard time presenting any major giveaway that is supported by the public and Council. Amazon subsidies would generate far greater outrage and opposition than the overblown opposition that doomed CodeNEXT. Opposition would come not just from Pool and others in the anti-density/anti-growth bloc. For instance, in March, Council Member Greg Casar signed onto Richard Florida’s “mutual nonaggression pact” that called on cities to “reject massive subsidies for Amazon.” I can’t think of one Council member, besides Adler, who I would bet good money on supporting it.

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