Amazon HQ in Seattle.
Photo: AP

The list of American cities vying to be the location of Amazon’s next headquarters has been whittled down to 20, from the original 238 who submitted proposals. But city council members and other officials in those cities say they don’t know what was promised in their name, according to The New York Times.

Despite the massive impact that the headquarters, known as HQ2, would make on any of the cities on the list, the details of the proposals to the retail giant are often known only by private groups, like local Chambers of Commerce. Amazon also required all the finalists to sign nondisclosure agreements to avoid proprietary information getting out.

The Times writes:

“I don’t know what we offered Amazon in terms of financial incentives, but I believe Amazon wants to see the biggest incentive package that any city will offer them,” said Leslie Pool, a member of the Austin City Council. The city, also a finalist, submitted a bid put together by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which had no consultations with the City Council. [...]

Amazon, which is expected to make $235 billion in revenue this year, promises to bring the winning location up to 50,000 high-paying jobs and a $5 billion investment in construction.

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Once a candidate is chosen to build the new HQ, the local government will have to pass all of the measures that tempted Amazon there. But with such a huge reward, it’s hard to imagine any city turning down the proposal, no matter how sweet the deal is for Amazon.

A few of the proposals have been made public, and as expected, the involve massive tax credits and other breaks for the company:

Maryland put together an $8.5 billion tax incentive and infrastructure bid, and local and state officials in New Jersey got legislative approval to offer Amazon $7 billion in tax credits and incentives to pick Newark.

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New Jersey’s proposal was only made public after a citizen filed a lawsuit.

“Typically, you see companies bid a couple of places against each other as they try to land a corporate deal,” Brad Lander, a New York City Council member, told the Times. “This process is highly unusual. It creates a real race-to-the-bottom aspect with the potential of companies bidding multiple cities against one another.”

The impact that Amazon has had on Seattle, where its current headquarters is located, is clear. According to Mayor Jenny Durkan, rents have increased 57 percent in the last five years, and there are 4,000 people living on the streets. The average price for a house is $824,000. City council members from smaller cities like Austin worry that the very things that make the city appealing to Amazon—small businesses, quirky culture—would be wiped out by the massive influx of money and transplants needed to fuel Amazon’s growth.

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But the appeal of Amazon’s offer is hard to pass up, even for mayors who claim to support lowering economic inequality.

“[Mayors like Bill de Blasio and Rahm Emanuel] are about ending inequality and creating more inclusive cities,” said Richard Florida, a professor at the School of Cities and the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “Now they’re in a game competing with one another to throw money at one of the most powerful companies in the world run by one of the world’s richest men.” [...]

As America experiences the impacts of 40 years of neoliberal policy hollowing out the public sector, it can feel like we’re living in a new feudal age, where the best we can hope for is for one of our tech overlords to bestow their jobs and money upon our communities. Cities in the US are so desperate for money and jobs that they’ll happily sell out their citizens to increase economic growth. There is nothing democratic about it.