Amazon was offered $3 billion in benefits, mostly tax exemptions but also a $500 million grant from the public. Empire State Development Corp, the state-run development arm is the main vehicle for the delivery of benefit to Amazon. ESDC has the power of eminent domain, is a bond issuer and is not subject to local zoning or approvals. Every approval, but one, was handed to Amazon together with a substantial pot of the people’s current and future revenue.
But Amazon walked nonetheless, because it chose not to defend the project to the public. To blame Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate leader as The Buffalo News did earlier this week, is to ignore that this project, struck in secret, with non-disclosure agreements no less, was handed to the public as fait accompli. Done. Here it is. And we have short circuited all typical approvals (except the last one, to be made sometime next year by three-men-in-a-room)
Amazon chose to not defend its project because it couldn’t. It is an $11 billion corporation and paid zero taxes last year. Thank you, New Yorkers for saying: “Are you kidding me?”
The public has the right to know how its money is being spent. Likewise, it has the right to know how tax exemptions are awarded. The manner in which economic development operates in New York State is long overdue for a healthy dose of sunshine, scrutiny and public exposure. This includes ESDC and the 106 industrial development agencies which approved exemptions of $10 billion last year, more than the total of the next three most giving states.
Amazon made its first mistake with the well-publicized competition for siting their mega project. Its second mistake was putting its hand out to the public when it was expanding as a business decision that it could well afford. Its third mistake was heading for the hills, taking its toys and going home.
There are lots of lessons to be learned here. But if sunshine is a byproduct, it’s a very good start.