Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Amazon has a new strategy to sway sceptics in New York

  • >> J David Goodman, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-01-30 09:11:47 BdST

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Opponents of Amazon’s planned campus in Long Island City, Queens, distribute fliers in the neighbourhood in New York. The New York Times

The messages landed in mailboxes across Queens like clockwork: glossy flyers, such as those from a political campaign, extolling a deal that would bring Amazon to Long Island City, paid for by Amazon.

With smiling faces and iconic Queens scenes, three rounds of flyers arrived in recent weeks as part of a concerted effort by the company to reset its image after the mostly disastrous rollout of its plans for a corporate campus in New York City. The opposition was fuelled by Democratic activists and others inspired by Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now Amazon is striking back.

The company is expected to offer a few salves to sceptics Wednesday at a City Council hearing: It will hire public housing residents to work at a new 30-person customer service centre and establish a certificate programme at LaGuardia College Community College to help students gain entry-level technology jobs. The company also announced that it would fund computer science courses at more than 130 New York high schools.

The announcements capped several weeks in which company executives and representatives, along with their lobbyists, have crisscrossed Queens for community gatherings and meetings with elected officials. They held a closed-door meeting with one prominent Queens opponent, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, even as others, like state Sen Michael Gianaris and the speaker of the council, Corey Johnson, have turned them away.

John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president for real estate, and other executives shared Italian food at Manducatis Rustica restaurant in Long Island City with 20 small business owners. Some worried about the effect of the development; according to the company, Schoettler told them about Amazon’s design philosophy and how, at its Seattle campus, it encourages employees to patronise surrounding businesses by providing only enough food options for about a third of its workers.

“We have been meeting with small business owners, educators, and community leaders,” Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy at Amazon, said in a statement. “We’re excited by what we’re hearing from them and the work we’re planning together.”

As it prepares for Wednesday’s hearing, the company, and its band of lobbyists, has organised a rally of what it hopes will be scores of supporters — including a prominent leader of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union — to counter expected protests by opponents, who include other unions, like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Teamsters.

The company’s campaign even reached the parents of WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer. Lehrer mentioned the flyers Tuesday during an interview with Gov Andrew Cuomo.

“They don’t even live anywhere near Long Island City,” Lehrer said. “So this made me think, Amazon is worried that the Legislature is going to do something.”

Cuomo, who worked directly with Mayor Bill de Blasio, his frequent public antagonist, to coax Amazon to the city, replied by praising the deal, which the company said would create at least 25,000 jobs. But he faulted Amazon for not doing better at selling what he called “a phenomenal win.”

The Legislature could pass a law to block the plan, Cuomo said — an avenue of opposition that few have suggested. (Opponents have generally focused on a little-known state board, which may not rule on the deal until 2020.)

“Don’t assume that the pluses of a program are obvious or will win,” the governor said. “It’s very often the negative, the small minority negative, that wins in this game because the politicians don’t want anyone to be upset with them.”

Indeed, for weeks after the deal was announced critics took to the streets while proponents were far less vocal, even though a Quinnipiac poll of New Yorkers found broad support for the plan, including in Queens. The deal, which became public in November, includes as much as $3 billion in state and city incentives.

Protesters and critics outnumbered and flat-footed Amazon executives during a council hearing last month, which turned into a rare public grilling for the company. Executives privately complained afterward that they had been treated better in Seattle or during congressional hearings.

Among those who asked pointed questions at the first hearing was Van Bramer, who represents the western Queens district along the East River where Amazon will build its new offices. Van Bramer said he had met recently with Braden Cox, director of state and local policy for Amazon; Holly Sullivan, Amazon’s director of global economic development; and Mark Weprin, a former councilman and lobbyist for the company.

“I have a policy where I meet with anyone, even if I disagree with them,” Van Bramer said. He added that he expected more frank answers to questions in private, especially on issues of concern to some local Democrats, such as the company’s work with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the gentrification pressure that the project would bring to Queens.

“They looked at me with each question and they said, we hear you,” Van Bramer said. “I said, but what’s the answer? And there were no answers.”

City officials, too, were left wondering at the flurry of activity. The announcement about computer science in schools caught some off-guard because it had not been coordinated with the city’s Department of Education, a spokesman said.

Gianaris said Amazon’s flyers, some of which urged residents to call him, did not have the desired effect. Of the calls he received after the first one went out in mid-January, he said, 42 were against the deal, and 38 for it.

He created a mailer of his own, borrowing imagery from Amazon’s flyer. “Get your logo off our landmarks!” reads one message, pointing to Amazon’s use of its smile, which the company had laid over an image of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

“It’s crazy that Amazon is spending so much of its money to convince people it’s entitled to take even more of their money,” said Gianaris, the second-highest ranking member of the Democratic majority in the state Senate. “As for the governor, of course we can pass a law to stop the deal. Is he suggesting he will sign such a law if we pass it?”

c.2019 New York Times News Service