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Utah submits Amazon HQ2 bid amid community concerns

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FILE - A package from Amazon Prime moves on a conveyor belt at a UPS facility, Tuesday, May 9, 2017 in New York.

FILE - A package from Amazon Prime moves on a conveyor belt at a UPS facility, Tuesday, May 9, 2017 in New York.

Mark Lennihan

SALT LAKE CITY — A little more than a month after an announcement that created a fury of interest and a flurry of activity among cities, states and provinces across North America, Utah has officially submitted its proposal to host Amazon's HQ2 ahead of Thursday's deadline.

And state leaders are hoping they're about to score the biggest corporate recruitment coup of all time.

At stake: $5 billion in capital investment, up to 50,000 jobs, and perhaps most valuable of all, the global cache that is likely to come with a choice that has taken on the feel of an annointment more than a business location decision.

And while Amazon provided a detailed list of requisites for its secondary headquarters — including a minimum population of 1 million, nearby international airport, on-site public transit access, a community with an "overall high-quality of life" — it seems the line item most noted by potential applicants has been the incentive clause in the request for proposals posting:

"Incentives offered by the state/province and local communities to offset initial capital outlay and ongoing operational costs will be significant factors in the decision-making process," it reads.

How high those "significant factors" are going to go was illustrated Monday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie released a statement indicating his team could amass $7 billion in state and local tax credits to bring the online retail giant to Newark.

On the flip side of the Garden State's enormous lure, more than 80 community groups from 21 states detailed their own list of requirements in an open letter to Amazon published Monday. The document asks Amazon to embrace a stance of engaged corporate citizenship and recognize the impacts its new secondary headquarters will bring to whichever city is chosen to host it.

The signatories ask for job/employment fairness; a regular contribution in support of local, affordable housing; a commitment to an open process of development plans once a site is chosen; and no tax incentives as a way to mitigate the widespread impacts of the new facility.

"The things about our cities that make you want to move here are the same reasons many of us live here. We have great systems of higher education, museums and infrastructure that helps move people and things from one place to another," the letter states.

"But we got that stuff by collectively paying for it, through taxes, and we’re expecting Amazon to pay your fair share if you end up being our neighbor."

Doug Burton, board chairman of the Utah independent business advocacy group Vest Pocket Business Coalition, said there's an inherent unfairness in using tax breaks as a strategy to lure large companies to Utah.

"When a large corporation comes in and gets a large tax incentive, we think it’s creating an unlevel playing field," Burton said.

"Small and independent businesses in Utah — who employ almost half the workers in the state — don't ever qualify for the same incentives," he said. "It's a big concern for us."

Utah officials have made it clear that while tax breaks are a typical part of the state's incentive efforts, participating in a bidding war will not be part of their Amazon proposal strategy.

Val Hale, director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, told the Deseret News last month that Utah's modus operandi for bringing new companies to the state has been — and would continue to be — touting the state's excellent quality of life; a strong, diverse economy; business-friendly environment; limited regulatory realm; competitive tax rates; and "one of the best workforces out there."

"We're never going to be throwing money out in terms of just trying to buy a project," Hale said. "We know if it comes down to the highest bidder, Utah would never be in first place in something like that."

Lincoln Nehring, president of Voices for Utah Children, a statewide advocacy group that works to ensure the state is a place where "all children can thrive," said he appreciates the conservative stance Utah has taken in the past to bring in new businesses.

In a statement to the Deseret News, Nehring said he believes the state, which has been on a streak of both positive economic growth and very low unemployment, is perhaps already near a tipping point in keeping up with economic successes.

"Utah faces tremendous growth pressures that require billions of dollars in new investment in transportation and water infrastructure to keep up," he said. "The Amazon HQ2 opportunity should prompt us to consider whether we want to choose to increase our already rapid growth even more."

While Amazon's positive economic impacts on Seattle from its current headquarters have been estimated at $38 billion over the past six years, other factors have been less stellar.

Median home prices in the area have doubled over the past five years, currently hovering near $730,000, according to the Seattle Times.

Seattle-based writer Kurt Schlosser underscored some additional, more gloomy impacts for potential HQ2 hosts to consider in a story he wrote for tech website GeekWire in September.

"Workers who don’t wear tech badges for a living are forced to look outside the city and thus contend with the traffic coming in and out of it, creating a vicious cycle and affordability crisis," Schlosser wrote. "Juxtaposed against the bustling nature of Amazon’s rise in downtown Seattle and nearby South Lake Union is a homelessness epidemic spread beneath highway overpasses, in RVs everywhere and throughout city parks that leads people to blame one for the other."

For now, Utah and the other likely dozens of applicants, will play a waiting game. On its HQ2 proposal webpage, Amazon is pointedly vague on when it will issue a final decision on the new, secondary location, listing simply "2018" as its response date.