Barbara Howard: Don't give away the store. That's what academics, public policy experts, and others are saying when it comes to the sweepstakes to land Amazon's second North American headquarters. Massachusetts is in the running, with Boston and Somerville on the shortlist for possible sites. And now, more than 5,000 people have signed a petition saying that areas under consideration should band together and reject tax breaks as part of the incentive packages that they are offering to Amazon. Among them is Amy Glasmeier. She is a professor at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Thanks for joining us, Professor Glasmeier.
Glasmeier: Thank you.
Howard: So for these cities and regions bidding for Amazon, what exactly is the petition calling on them to do?
Glasmeier: To treat this as an opportunity to invest in themselves and to reset the way that we undertake economic development. This is such a large opportunity that it dwarfs everything that we've seen from the past. It's an opportunity to reset the way we actually build and resource communities, and it gets us out of this position of being a supplicant and somehow dependent upon these organizations, rather than being partners.
Howard: These companies?
Howard: We don't know yet the details of any potential package being offered by Massachusetts or by Boston. The city of Somerville notably says it is not offering any local level tax breaks, saying in a statement that it is “certain that the opportunity to join and invest in our dynamic communities will be the primary incentive for Amazon.” But Maryland, for example — it's offering a $5-billion plan, New Jersey a $7-billion plan. And doesn't that mean that the cat's already out of the bag in terms of asking areas to unify and to refuse to offer tax breaks?
Glasmeier: Well just because they’ve said what they would do doesn't mean that they have actually signed a contract. The corporation has usually already got a really good idea about where they're going to go. And yes, they've put their hand out, but there are facets of a place they are interested in accessing, and it is often icing on the cake.
Howard: So Massachusetts and Boston, they don't really need to offer the same incentives as other places. Is that what you're saying?
Glasmeier: I would say that there's a different strategy for a place like Boston. Boston offers any corporation that locates here a set of conditions that are hard to match anywhere in the world. Where are you going to find 70 universities within an hour's drive? Where are you going to find a population with this high level of education? Where are you going to find a state that basically is well run on many scores? Boston could flip the table so to speak, and say to Amazon, 'We'll invest in ourselves in this way, over this time period, to accomplish these things because we know that's in your interest, but it's also in our interest.'
Howard: For example, transportation or better schools ….
Glasmeier: …Transportation … I mean there's a lot of things …
Howard: There is a precedent for these kinds of packages, of course. Just two years ago the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts gave GE — General Electric — a quarter-billion dollars in incentives to have the GE headquarters located here in Boston. How's that working?
Glasmeier: Well, we can see that GE is a really different corporation than it was two years ago.
Howard: It’s scaled back its building, its schedules …
Glasmeier: … It hasn't broken ground on its magnificent piece of architecture, and it appears to be almost in a holding pattern.
Howard: Could Boston have gotten GE with no incentives, do you think?
Glasmeier: I would argue that there would be some exchange no matter what, because that's how the game is played. That's what the petition is about. The game is bad. The game costs money. It is highly variable in its consequence, and it puts the community in a position where they're basically bankrolling somebody on the basis of future payments that it needs to actually pay its own bills. And that's what we're trying to say with Amazon, is sit down and figure out a smart move for everybody. You can't lose. If this is allowed to escalate to some obscene level, then everybody looks bad because we don't look like we're making good decisions. We're not actually thinking about ourselves. What we're doing is we're allowing somebody else to decide the future.
Howard: Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Glasmeier.
Glasmeier: Thank you.
Howard: That's Amy Glasmeier. She is professor at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and she and more than 5,000 economists, public policy experts, academics, and more — they have signed a petition calling on cities and regions to reject tax breaks in trying to woo Amazon, as Amazon considers where to build its second North American headquarters. WGBH News did reach out to the economic development chiefs for the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts, and we did not receive a response.
This interview aired on the afternoon of Feb. 8. The number of signatures on the petition may have changed since its original airing.