At a recent conference, Chuck Day stewed as he listened to an Amazon official describe a plan to disrupt the restaurant equipment industry.
Soon, the Amazon executive told the audience, restaurants will be able to order everything they need by browsing the company’s website and clicking. For some, it was a promise for more efficiency. But for Day, whose restaurant supply business relies on personal touch, it was a threat to wipe out small companies like the one he owns.
The talk was enough to turn Day against the idea of giving taxpayer money to Amazon in return for opening its second headquarters in Atlanta.
“Why are you giving a gun to Amazon to blow my brains out — which is what you’re going to do,” said Day, president of Manning Brothers Food Equipment Co. in Athens.
Though many in metro Atlanta’s business, civic and political circles have encouraged the pursuit of HQ2 and its 50,000 high-paying jobs, not everyone is excited that state officials are pulling out the red carpet to lure Amazon.
Some fear what Amazon might do to their companies, commutes, neighborhoods and even local and state budgets as job-hungry leaders dangle what will likely amount to billions of dollars in tax breaks and other perks for the Seattle-based company.
Most people in metro Atlanta seem to want Amazon to come here; two-thirds of respondents polled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January said they’d support a billion-dollar package of perks to land HQ2.
But in dozens of interviews with residents from Brunswick to Blairsville, the AJC encountered deep skepticism about the state’s all-out bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. Many worry public officials will put too many resources on the line to lure the company, and that the jobs it will deliver won’t be worth the cost.
“Everybody is saying these jobs are going to come here and implying that Atlanta residents are going to get them. And I just don’t see that happening,” said Skylar Denney, an actress who lives in the city. “It’s going to contribute to gentrification, make traffic even worse. My alarm bells are just going off.”
And some fear the influx of newcomers could forever tilt Georgia’s political landscape.
“As far as I’m concerned, Amazon can take their jobs to some other state,” said Jerry Kotyuk, a Marietta retiree active in the tea party movement. Just like tax breaks that attracted the film industry, he said, landing Amazon could “change the culture of Georgia for the worse.”
“These industries are bringing their West Coast values to Georgia, and Amazon would do the same,” Kotyuk said.
That angst has quickly seeped into political races. Politicians are trying to walk a careful line between positioning Georgia as a pro-business state and divvying out incentives to an e-commerce giant with a balance sheet brimming with revenues.
At a recent GOP forum for governor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle epitomized the balancing act. He said he was “excited” about the chance to hook Amazon. But he also suggested that offering lucrative incentives beyond those already available to most companies would be a tough sell.
“Every single tax credit that is on the books right now — whether it’s a job tax credit or an investment tax credit — every single company gets to take the same advantage,” said Cagle, who leads the state Senate. “You treat everyone fairly, and what their total comes up to is what they’re entitled to. But it’s not sacrificing our values.”
‘Rents will go up’
Hints of the opposition are popping up closer to home. Intown Atlanta buildings and walls have been tagged with “NO HQ2” and “Destroy Amazon” graffiti, and fliers posted around the city depict Amazon as a monster engulfing Atlanta. The website AtlantaAgainstAmazon.org has become one focal point for the opposition.
Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president who ran for mayor last year, said Amazon could benefit the community. But tax breaks to Amazon with no strings attached — such as investments in infrastructure or community programs — would be foolhardy.
“I think that we could have a really constructive relationship with Amazon if they wanted to come here,” she said. “But I do think it’s really time to look at corporate incentives and make sure they’re beneficial to the taxpayer in the short run and the long run.”
In areas where college-educated professionals migrate, the high salaries and demand cause housing costs to spike, said Dan Immergluck, a Georgia State University professor and expert on affordable housing. Atlanta already is far behind in developing new affordable housing to keep up with demand.
“That basically means property values will go up. Rents will go up. And the people who will lose the most will be low-income renters,” he said.
Last month, an Amazon delegation visited metro Atlanta to tour top sites, and state and local leaders put on the hard-sell, attempting to wow Amazon officials with the region’s cultural amenities, its workforce, research universities and quality of life.
Money talks just as loudly. The state has prepared an incentive package said to be worth more than $1 billion. Still, that pales in comparison to the eye-popping offers from some rival cities and states. Gov. Nathan Deal plans to summon lawmakers to a special session to hash out a far sweeter offer if Atlanta is named a top finalist.
If a special session is needed, state leaders must convince both lawmakers and their constituents that pouring public resources into the project will have a statewide benefit – much like past leaders did with the film tax credit and the push to deepen the Savannah port.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, now the nation’s agriculture secretary, recounted struggling with that as a state senator representing a Middle Georgia district in the 1990s. He recalled that he stripped money that would have helped boost the port’s infrastructure from a spending bill and was quickly summoned to then-Gov. Zell Miller’s office.
“That money got put back in, as you might imagine,” said Perdue, who said the late governor helped him understand the link between his rural district and the success of the ports. “The connection between all those things is important.”
Griff Lynch, the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said opponents to the Amazon bid are missing the bigger picture. The economic impact of a $5 billion corporate investment and 50,000 jobs will send ripples across the state.
It will lure suppliers and vendors, and Amazon will likely make additional investments beyond the distribution centers it now has scattered around the state. Lynch pointed to the recent decision by Mercedes-Benz to pick Atlanta for a new innovation center after opening its North American headquarters in Sandy Springs as an example.
“What is this going to mean for future generations of Georgians?” Lynch said. “It gives you an opportunity to stay within your state and go work, and I think it will be phenomenal.”
On a recent Tuesday, Allyson Rochette chatted with friends outside a pizza joint on Bull Street in Savannah. She said tens of thousands of Amazon workers in Atlanta would mean more tourists who spend money on vacation — and pay tips at restaurants like the one where she works.
In Chippewa Square, Juliana Victoria Weygand and Dylan Fuccello watched tourists pass by. Both said they want lawmakers to use Georgia’s tax money sparingly in recruiting the company.
“We feel taxes every single day,” Fuccello said. “Then the cost of living goes up, but we hope incomes rise as well.”
Weygand said she hoped Amazon HQ2 would bring more progressive residents to the state who could have an influence on the state’s generally conservative politics.
“It’s what Georgia needs,” she said.
‘The good and the bad’
That’s exactly what has some Republicans squeamish.
State Rep. Terry Rogers, who represents a rural North Georgia district, said he’s heard from constituents who worry “that a bunch of Democrats could be coming in” if Atlanta lands Amazon. He said he’s feeling some early pressure to resist doling out extra incentives to the company.
“Some people feel it might change the demographics of the state by bringing in a more liberal voice,” said Rogers, a Republican. “But being the No. 1 state in the nation for business is also a source of pride, so a lot of folks are competitive. They want to win.”
The competition also has some small business owners in knots.
Day bought the restaurant supply firm nine years ago and has worked there for 18. It now has 34 employees and, he proudly notes, he offers them good wages and benefits. But he can’t help feeling that small businesses are being under-appreciated as he watches Georgia swoon over one of the biggest companies in the world.
“I want to make sure my people aren’t standing on a street corner with a sign reading: ‘Will design kitchens for food,’” he said.
There’s a similar concern in the northern reaches of Georgia, some of the most conservative stretches in the state. Over at Sunrise Grocery, which bills itself as Blairsville’s oldest store, there’s been a mix of muted grumbles and general ambivalence about Amazon.
Jason Clemmons, the store’s owner, said he can pinpoint evidence of the benefits of the tax credit for the film industry. Movies have been made nearby in Georgia’s scenic mountains. Folks in town have gotten gigs on sets. He wants the same assurances that Amazon’s benefits will trickle up to Georgia’s northern edges.
“It seems good, like it would bring a lot of jobs. But we’d need to see the impact that it’s made,” said Clemmons. “We want to know the good and the bad.”
Deal and his allies hope to make that case if given the chance. And incentive opponents hope to make them fight for every penny.
Conrad Quagliaroli of Woodstock said he and most other Trump supporters are not against Amazon’s bid.
“We are opposed,” he added, “to bribing them with our tax dollars to come here.”