Amazon has joined the Greater Washington Partnership, an alliance of many of the region’s largest companies, as its seeks to project an image that it will be a good corporate citizen in its new Crystal City headquarters.
The company also recently joined the Arlington County and Alexandria City chambers of commerce and has held dozens of meeting with other local groups as it tries to smooth the way for the opening of its HQ2 and its eventual 25,000 employees.
But Amazon’s efforts have done little to appease opposition from a small but vocal group of grass-roots activists seeking to prevent the company from coming. They are pressing the Arlington County Board to organize public meetings with Amazon representatives.
The opponents want to discuss concerns that the influx of well-paid new residents will raise housing costs, add to road congestion and displace low-income families. They also object to giving public subsidies to a wealthy corporation, and they are critical of Amazon’s partnership with companies that work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On Thursday morning, three protesters from the coalition “For Us, Not Amazon” briefly disrupted a large conference in Arlington organized by the digital media company Bisnow to discuss the Amazon project. Protesters from the same group also showed up at a county board meeting Saturday and called for a “public hearing with Amazon in the room.”
So far, however, the board has declined to commit to such a meeting.
Amazon’s outreach efforts are getting a more positive reception in Northern Virginia than in New York, where local opposition led the company to cancel plans to put a similar headquarters facility with 25,000 jobs in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens.
Still, the pressures on the Arlington leaders show that elected officials and the company must deal with some degree of public resistance. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The controversy may come to a head at the next county board meeting, set for March 16, when the five-member panel is to consider an incentives package worth up to $23 million for the online retail giant. Virginia has approved state subsidies of up to $750 million.
Amazon said it joined the Greater Washington Partnership to encourage regional cooperation and help tackle the area’s problems. The company’s representative will be Jay Carney, senior vice president for global corporate affairs, who was a White House press secretary to President Barack Obama.
“I am proud to join the Partnership and take part in its efforts to foster unity and drive economic growth in the region,” Carney said in a statement.
Amazon is the highest-profile institution yet to join the partnership, which has rapidly become an influential business group since it was founded in December 2016. Its board has grown from 17 to 26 top executives, and the organization aims to build a prosperous “megacity” stretching from Richmond to Baltimore.
The partnership lobbied to help persuade Amazon to put its East Coast headquarters in the area. It has advocated measures to address some of the region’s problems — such as the gridlocked transportation network — that Amazon’s arrival could aggravate.
Russ Ramsey, the partnership’s chairman, said Amazon’s membership strengthens efforts to advertise the increasing diversity of the Washington region’s economy.
“We’re trying to educate the rest of the world that we’re more than just a government town,” Ramsey said. “Obviously, Amazon brings a lot to us, in terms of recognition and visibility.”
He also defended Amazon’s outreach in Arlington.
“I’m not sure they could have done much more to be, quote, more engaged with the community,” Ramsey said. “Having said that, you can’t make everybody happy. . . . There are groups that are going to protest anything.”
Amazon will be “a good neighbor and active member” of the Arlington community and greater Washington region, Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s head of worldwide economic development, told a friendly audience of government officials, business executives and nonprofit leaders at a Feb. 21 forum organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Sullivan said the company would seek to fill as many jobs as possible with local hires and take steps to encourage its employees to become a part of the community. For example, at the company’s Seattle headquarters, the cafeteria was designed to be too small for all of the Amazon employees at that site, an effort to encourage them to patronize local restaurants. The company holds volunteer fairs to introduce employees to opportunities in the community.
Sullivan said Amazon has held more than 50 meetings with local organizations to discuss its plans and will consider meeting with anyone who asks.
“We continue to meet with a lot of different community members, business leaders, nonprofit associations,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to continue that work, and we’re happy to review any invitation put before us.”
Two leaders of the For Us, Not Amazon coalition were invited to the Council of Governments meeting but declined on grounds that it was an invitation-only event and not organized by the county board.
“It is the county board’s responsibility to make sure there is equitable and accessible engagement to all community members,” said Danny Cendejas, a leader of For Us, Not Amazon.
Groups heading the coalition questioning the concessions to Amazon include Our Revolution Arlington, Democratic Socialists of America and La ColectiVA.
After several protesters expressed their views at last week’s board meeting, Chairman Christian Dorsey (D) noted that the Amazon issue will be considered in a public hearing at the panel’s March 16 meeting. He asked the public to send the board proposals as to what would be appropriate “asks” of the company.
Board member Erik Gutshall (D) said that the panel has conducted numerous listening sessions with the public since the Amazon headquarters announcement and that he has called on the company to increase its outreach to the community.
“I’m encouraged by Amazon’s willingness to engage in candid discussions around a host of issues,” he said. But neither he nor the rest of the board would commit to organizing a community-wide forum with company representatives.