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Amazon Bid Should Be More Transparent, Activists Say

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Activists call for a more transparent Amazon application process at a demonstration in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

Amazon, one of the world’s most successful businesses, started out as an online bookseller. But an effort to lure its second corporate headquarters--and 50,000 jobs--to Pittsburgh has not exactly been an open book.

Pittsburgh is one of 20 cities vying for Amazon’s second headquarters, and efforts to lure new employers often take place in secret, at least early on. But with billions at stake, the Amazon deal has attracted growing scrutiny once the city applied to house its North American expansion last fall. Since then, the city has rejected requests for information filed under state open-record laws.


Mayor Bill Peduto said he doesn’t want other regions to know what’s in Pittsburgh’s plan.


“I can understand where there would be a lot of people who would say, ‘Well, we want our voice now.’  But what we would be guaranteeing is that every other city would see our hand," he said. "Their voice comes after the proposal has been made and beginning the public process.”


Right now, that process includes only state and local government development officials and a small circle of civic leaders. Even those who’d have to approve the deal know nothing about it.


If Amazon does choose Pittsburgh, for example, City Council would need to approve any tax incentives. No one on council has been briefed on what those may be, though so far they don’t seem upset.


Take Councilor Corey O’Connor: “As long as we are giving residents a seat at the table in discussions on what their neighborhoods need, I’m pretty confident that we could accomplish a lot.”


Pittsburgh’s nine school board members would also have to approve any incentives that involved school taxes, but they’re keeping quiet for now. WESA reached out to all nine members, and the six who responded said they knew nothing about the city’s bid. None were willing to comment on it.


The state is offering its own inducements. Gov. Tom Wolf said that package, too, is under wraps, but that the legislature would have to approve incentives.


"There’s a real check-and-balance here," Wolf said. "The point is, in the middle of negotiations is not the time to share your proposal with the rest of the world.”


Other states have disclosed their incentive packages. New Jersey publicly pledged $7 billion in incentives, and Maryland’s legislature just passed a $8.5 billion package.


Pittsburgh activist Brandi Fisher argued Peduto should be more open, too.


“He’s a proponent of transparency, just like our governor is, so we’re just asking him to do what he already believes in,” she said. “[Amazon is] saying 'yes' based on what’s offered. And so we need to make sure what is offered is what benefits the people here.”


Activists worry that if Amazon does choose Pittsburgh, it would be difficult to turn down even a bad deal. Peduto disagreed, pointing to a controversial 2000 proposal in which former Mayor Tom Murphy sought to replace local businesses with national chains.


“Council voted it down, even though Mayor Murphy fought very hard to make it happen,” Peduto said.


Actually, City Council never voted on the so-called “Fifth/Forbes” project. The deal collapsed after its anchor department store, Nordstrom, withdrew.


“All the votes were there at City Council for it to proceed,” recalled Bernie Lynch, who represented Downtown businesses. But Lynch, who later worked on development for the late Mayor Bob O’Connor, agrees secrecy is often necessary, at least early on.


“What’s difficult for all of us is, we weren’t invited into the white board when this deal was put together," Lynch said. "But I also understand from the government perspective, you have to make guarantees on confidentiality just to be competitive.”


Dennis Davin, the governor's top development official, said this week he wasn’t sure when Amazon would choose the winning city. That too, is an element of the deal that remains to be seen.


90.5 WESA's An-Li Herring, Margaret J. Krauss and Sarah Schneider contributed to this report.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.