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Local governments won’t say what they’re offering Amazon

  • FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, file photo, Zavian Tate, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, pushes a large Amazon Dash button, in Birmingham, Ala. The buttons are part of the city's campaign to lure Amazon's second headquarters to Birmingham. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File) Brynn Anderson

  • FILE - In this Wednesday Nov. 13, 2013, file photo, Charlie Downs, the artisanal craft distiller at a new Heaven Hill Distilleries tourism attraction in downtown Louisville, Ky., checks gauges on a still that will produce small batches of whiskey. In an effort to woo Amazon's second headquarters to their area, Louisville is playing up its role as the gateway to Kentucky bourbon country. However, the city isn't saying exactly what incentives they are offering to Amazon as enticement to build there. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner, File) Bruce Schreiner

  • FILE - In this June 21, 2016, file photo, cars make their way along historic Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque, N.M. Albuquerque is one of the cities wooing Amazon to build their second headquarters in their area. However, the city isn't saying exactly what incentives they are offering Amazon as enticement to build there. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File) Susan Montoya Bryan

  • FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, file photo, a Carolina Panthers fan shows his desire for Amazon to make Charlotte its East Coast headquarters before an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, in Charlotte, N.C. Many state and local governments competing for Amazon’s second headquarters are refusing to release details on the tax breaks or other financial incentives they are offering the online giant. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone, File) Bob Leverone

  • FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2016, file photo, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo speaks during a conference of New England's governors and eastern Canada's premiers to discuss closer regional collaboration, in Boston. Many state and local governments competing for Amazon’s second headquarters are refusing to release details on the tax breaks or other financial incentives they are offering the online giant. "We want to be in the best possible position to negotiate. We don't want the whole world to know our strategy," Raimondo said in a radio interview. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File) Elise Amendola

  • FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, file photo, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, right, speaks while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stands behind him during an announcement in Newark, N.J. New Jersey lawmakers have signed off on 5 billion in tax breaks to Amazon in an effort to convince the company that Newark would be the best location for the company's planned second headquarters. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) Seth Wenig

  • FILE - In this Friday, June 10, 2016, file photo, sailboats practice in front of the downtown Chicago skyline during practice for an America's Cup World Series sailing event. Many state and local governments competing for Amazon’s second headquarters, including Chicago, are refusing to release details on the tax breaks or other financial incentives they are offering the online giant. Chicago said releasing such information “could give an advantage to another applicant." (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File) Kiichiro Sato

  • The city of Virginia Beach, Va., is using a sand sculpture to promote its application to become home to Amazon’s second headquarters. While some cities and states are going public with their proposals to woo the online retailer, most are keeping that information secret. AP

  • Snow covers the track at the Scarborough Downs harness racing track in Scarborough, Maine, last week. The track is one of two Maine suitors trying to lure Amazon to the Pine Tree State. AP

  • A sign welcomes race fans to the Scarborough Downs harness racing track, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Scarborough, Maine. The track is one of two Maine suitors trying to lure Amazon to the Pine Tree State. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

  • FILE - This Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, file photo shows City Hall in Philadelphia. The cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are both attempting to woo Amazon to build its second headquarters in Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, an independent development agency overseeing the city's bid said it spent 160,000 to develop and promote its proposal, including a website and video. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) Matt Rourke



Associated Press
Sunday, January 14, 2018

State and local governments have been more than happy to play up the amenities they think make their locations the best choice for Amazon’s second headquarters. But many of them will not disclose the tax breaks or other financial incentives they are offering the online giant.

More than 15 states and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland and Las Vegas, refused requests from the Associated Press to detail the promises they made to try to lure the company.

Among the reasons given: Such information is a “trade secret” and disclosing it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

“We want to be in the best possible position to negotiate. We don’t want the whole world to know our strategy,” Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island said in a radio interview.

Amazon’s search for a second headquarters city has triggered an unprecedented competition among governments around North America to attract a $5 billion project that promises to create 50,000 jobs. The retailing behemoth has made clear that tax breaks and grants will be a big factor in its decision. It received 238 proposals and said it will announce a decision sometime this year.

Public records laws around the country vary, but when courting businesses, governments generally aren’t required to disclose tax breaks and other incentives during the negotiating phase.

Open-government advocates, though, argue that Amazon is a special case because of the way it has turned the project into a public auction, the large amount of taxpayer money at stake, and the political clout the Seattle-based company could have in its new home.

“They’re just acting like this is another secret deal,” said Greg LeRoy, head of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit group that tracks economic development spending. “This is a nutty situation.”

He said there are no grounds for hiding the information since no one is negotiating yet with Amazon.

“It’s all paid for by taxpayer dollars,” he said. “Therefore, it should all be public.”

In recent months, Amazon suitors in Maine have cited New England’s charm, skiing and beaches, Detroit has cited its rebounding downtown, and others have boasted of their labor forces or public transportation. Chicago recruited Star Trek actor William Shatner to help narrate a video pitch in hopes of getting the attention of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, a devoted Trekkie.

The AP asked for copies of the financial proposals from dozens of places trying to draw Amazon. The AP also sought invoices outlining how much public money was used to create the proposals and promote them via public relations campaigns.

Some state and local governments have trumpeted the financial incentives they are dangling. New Jersey’s pitch contains $7 billion in tax breaks, a draft of Houston’s plan calls for about $268 million in inducements, and Boston’s incentives include $75 million for housing for Amazon employees.

But others – including Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, Virginia and such cities as Detroit; Philadelphia; Orlando, Fla.; Louisville, Ky.; and Albuquerque, N.M. – won’t say exactly what they’re offering.

Chicago said releasing such information “could give an advantage to another applicant,” and it turned over to the AP 82 pages of nondisclosure agreements. Charlotte, N.C., gave a similar explanation.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment. Amazon said in its request for proposals in September that “certain aspects” of the project and details about the company “are confidential, proprietary and constitute trade secrets.”

Many of the bids received by Amazon were submitted by outside groups such as regional economic development agencies that are not typically required by public records laws to release such information.

More than 40 other requests from the AP for financial information produced no responses from government agencies or are still under consideration.

In Texas, for example, cities including Dallas, Houston and Austin responded to the AP’s request by asking the state attorney general for an opinion on whether some of the financial details can be withheld for competitive reasons.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, lamented: “The people of our state can’t really follow the money anymore. ... Taxpayers have a right to see how their money is being spent.”

John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said it was disappointing that “Rhode Island didn’t shoot for transparency.”

“We don’t necessarily want a company that can throw its weight around. So it would be interesting to know how that message was represented in the bid,” he said.

According to records obtained by the AP, the costs associated with the proposals themselves ranged from a few hundred dollars for copies, to tens of thousands of dollars for promotional efforts.

In Philadelphia, an independent development agency overseeing the city’s bid said it spent $160,000 to develop and promote its proposal, including a website and video . Worcester, Mass., released invoices showing that it spent more than $10,500 on its proposal, most of it on a video. Virginia Beach, Va., spent $3,000 to build a sand sculpture to promote its application.