Flor­ida busi­nesses in dan­ger after Ama­zon HQ2 con­test

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - OPINION - By Robert B. En­gel

Ama­zon was promised nearly $5 bil­lion in tax­payer in­cen­tives from the HQ2 sweep­stakes win­ners New York and North­ern Vir­ginia – cor­po­rate wel­fare that has been roundly con­demned by pro­gres­sives and con­ser­va­tive alike.

But less at­ten­tion has been paid to the troves of “rarely pub­lic” data Ama­zon re­ceived from Mi­ami and the 235 other losers of the year­long com­pe­ti­tion – data on ev­ery­thing from eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment projects and in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ments to pop­u­la­tion pro­jec­tions and an­tic­i­pated em­ploy­ment trends.

Ama­zon hav­ing this enor­mous data­base is a threat to busi­nesses big and small across the coun­try that do not read­ily have ac­cess to the same in­for­ma­tion.

South Flor­ida law­mak­ers should call for this data to be made widely avail­able – not merely in a PDF ad­dressed to Ama­zon – for all busi­nesses so that those op­er­at­ing in or want­ing to lo­cate to Mi­ami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach coun­ties can com­pete fairly against Ama­zon. This pub­lic dis­clo­sure should in­clude the se­cret an­swers to Ama­zon’s fol­low-up ques­tions.

Ama­zon fielded bids from 238 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in to­tal, and many of those bids of­fered eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment plans; trans­porta­tion in­for­ma­tion and in­fra­struc­ture plan­ning; la­bor and wage rate in­for­ma­tion; hous­ing ca­pac­ity; crime rates; and en­ergy costs. Hav­ing this data on hand, Ama­zon now has a sys­tem­atic ad­van­tage over other busi­nesses want­ing to op­er­ate or lo­cate in the three coun­ties that put in a col­lec­tive bid as “Mi­ami.”

While the pro­posal is still un­der lock and key, there is lit­tle doubt that South Flor­ida walked into the same trap so many oth­ers did.

Las Ve­gas sub­mit­ted a 142-page pro­posal that pro­vides a color-coded map of a new planned trans­porta­tion cor­ri­dor be­tween Las Ve­gas and Phoenix. San Fran­cisco put to­gether a 160-page pro­posal that de­tails hous­ing de­vel­op­ment plans and presents a chart with a neigh­bor­hood-by-neigh­bor­hood break­down. In Toledo’s bid, there was a “Sup­ple­men­tal Ma­te­ri­als” sec­tion with a full mark-up of a planned shop­ping com­plex – in­clud­ing which build­ings cer­tain com­pa­nies will oc­cupy.

A crit­i­cal ques­tion is what Mi­ami’s col­lec­tive bid told Ama­zon in se­cret an­swers to the fol­low-up ques­tions sent to all HQ2 fi­nal­ists.

New York is one of the few fi­nal­ists whose fol­low-up an­swers have come to light, and even in that case, the city acted as though it had some­thing to hide. After the doc­u­ment was briefly made avail­able on­line, it was abruptly taken down – a city spokesper­son said it con­tained pro­pri­etary in­for­ma­tion. What pro­pri­ety in­for­ma­tion did Mi­ami’s se­cret an­swers in­clude?

Holly Sul­li­van, Ama­zon’s head of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, said her­self that the HQ2 bid­ding process gave them in­sight into the fu­ture eco­nomic plans of the 238 com­mu­ni­ties that sub­mit­ted bids.

“Through this process, we learned about many new com­mu­ni­ties across North Amer­ica that we will con­sider as lo­ca­tions for fu­ture in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment and job cre­ation,” she said. This very well could have been the rea­son Ama­zon de­cided to have a bid­ding war in the first place, con­sid­er­ing the fact that Ama­zon sent a 30-page re­quest of ques­tions to all of the 20 HQ2 fi­nal­ists.

The im­pact on Mi­ami busi­nesses and lo­cal economies across the coun­try could be dev­as­tat­ing.

Ama­zon has al­ready ex­panded its ship­ping and dis­tri­bu­tion net­work in re­cent years and gained an un­prece­dented com­pet­i­tive edge by rak­ing in pub­lic sub­si­dies. This has crushed in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ers, 90 per­cent of which say that Ama­zon is hav­ing a neg­a­tive im­pact on their rev­enue. Ama­zon is even strik­ing deals with lo­cal gov­ern­ments to sup­ply school ma­te­ri­als, for in­stance, un­der­cut­ting lo­cal sup­pli­ers.

Now, as a re­sult of the HQ2 bid­ding process, Ama­zon knows when, where and how com­mu­ni­ties plan to in­vest – giv­ing it even more of a com­pet­i­tive edge.

Mi­ami law­mak­ers must do the right thing and im­me­di­ately re­lease all HQ2 bid in­for­ma­tion – in­clud­ing the se­cret an­swers to Ama­zon’s fol­low-up ques­tions – so that busi­nesses can com­pete on a level play­ing field and en­sure that Ama­zon doesn’t use this in­for­ma­tion to stamp out its com­pe­ti­tion.

Robert B. En­gel, a for­mer CEO of CoBank of Den­ver, Col., is the chief spokesper­son of the Free & Fair Mar­kets Ini­tia­tive, a non­profit coali­tion fo­cused on sup­port­ing a mod­ern, fair mar­ket­place for small busi­nesses and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

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