I am finding out that discussing the Amazon HQ2 project in Long Island City is as treacherous as traveling down the Amazon River on a raft: full of wild rapids and deep trenches and home to biting amphibians. And that's just around people I love!
Let me state that I was not part of the negotiations, but by virtue of my job, I've been fielding many inquiries since the announcement. And let's get this out in the open, I'm in favor of the Seattle-based company's expansion in Queens.
But before any rotten fruit is thrown through my office windows and negative emails flood my inbox, allow me to explain.
I recently finished the second volume of Mike Wallace's “Greater Gotham.” The book covers 1898 to 1919, but it sheds incredible light on the changes that took place in this city in less than a generation.
It points to the fact that New York City must always reinvent itself to remain a world-class city. If not, we become an artifact like Venice, which is now primarily known for sinking into the sea and overpriced cappuccino.
When I started my career in 1979, my first task was to attract a quality drug store to southern Queens. There was none as most neighborhoods were redlined.
Queensborough Plaza was notable for greasy doughnut shops and illicit sex. Commuting on the E or F to Kew Gardens in the morning, I was often the only one in the subway car, though a drunk once tried to knife me, but only succeeded in slitting my New York Times down the middle.
People and businesses did not want to be here. Efforts were made to retain the borough's great companies, Eagle Electric and Swingline come to mind. (Oh, how I miss that gigantic neon stapler bearing down over Sunnyside Yards!)
This city once had hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, now it has fewer than 75,000. Incentives were used to hemorrhage the flow of jobs, but in the end it was like shoveling sand against the tide.
Manufacturing found greener pastures and the great smoke stacks that defined our borough disappeared.
We were triumphant when Citi opened its tower; we thought it was harbinger of financial institutions that would jump across the East River. But the economic downturns in 1987 and 2008 put a big damper on the financial sector as our savior.
As the world's most diverse county, we need a diverse economy. We still have manufacturing, albeit on a smaller scale and hopefully more environmentally friendly.
Citi did beget other financial organizations, such as the UN Credit Union. Tourism, which employs more than 50,000 people in Queens, has played a key role as people flock for an authentic NYC experience.
The movie studios have also made our economic base fatter, bringing with them a touch of glamour.
Throughout history, New York City adapts. We always have. From an oyster trading post to the country's biggest port to a manufacturing center to financiers who went on to open offices in counting houses to cultural arts and mass media, we need to be cutting edge.
Over the last decades, technology has become that edge, and it cuts across every sector.
Why did Amazon chose Queens? For a company that wants to be at the intersection of technology, diversity, and a well-skilled labor pool, the choice is apparent.
My loved ones ask, "Do they really need the billions of dollars that could go to rebuilding our infrastructure, schools, and hospitals?" My response is that most of the economic development incentives are as-of-right and/or in the form of tax credits, not cold cash.
They're tax credits on new jobs, not retained jobs. If 25,000 jobs are created that pay an average of $150,000 each per year, that's an annual payroll of $3,750,000,000.
The incentives are "paid back" by spreading a lot of money through the city and putting a lot of bread on a lot of tables. And these are new jobs that will add to our tax base.
In addition, Amazon has agreed to help with schools, job fairs, and other community benefits. This is where we need to take a strong and tough stance. Job fairs and resume writing workshops are sweet, but they need to do much more.
Skilled training must be memorialized into the agreement, especially for communities that have been sidelined as development booms around them. This is how they can make a difference, and by doing so, be a model for future economic development.
It's also time take a hard line on infrastructure improvements financed in part by companies that want ─ and need ─ better transit, schools, and health care if they're going to continue to attract a qualified workforce.
The Long Island City site must be designed carefully, 25,000 employees are a lot, and they're going to need goods and services. Savvy local entrepreneurs will benefit. We need to ensure they're trained to provide the goods and services even Amazon employees can't buy on Amazon.
We are New York. We welcome, we absorb, and we need to make Amazon accommodate us.
Seth Bornstein is executive director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation.