Explain this: while half the people at KUOW's Amazon debate Wednesday came to the conclusion that the company is not good for Seattle, three-quarters of the audience also said they have an Amazon Prime membership.
Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Marilyn Strickland pointed out the contradiction.
“Let’s be realistic. Amazon is a great company, it is a global brand, and any time a local company starts we hope they are successful,” Strickland said. “And every single person who uses their product is complicit in their success.”
At the opening of the debate, held at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Capitol Hill, 56 percent of the audience agreed that Amazon is good for Seattle, while 44 percent disagreed. And 17 percent said they work for Amazon. Post-debate, the crowd’s support for Amazon had diminished somewhat, to a 50-50 split.
One thing KUOW’s panelists seemed to agree on: Seattle was caught off-guard by Amazon’s explosive growth and could have done more to prepare. And even the company’s advocates suggested that given its profits, Amazon could and should do more to ease those growing pains.
Hear more in-depth Amazon reporting on our podcast Prime(d): What happens when Amazon comes to your town.
But former Seattle Chamber President Maud Daudon, who joined Strickland in making the case for Amazon, praised the company's support for nonprofits like FareStart and Mary’s Place, which provides housing and services to homeless families.
Former mayoral candidates Nikkita Oliver and Cary Moon made the case against Amazon. Oliver equated Amazon’s growth with a cancer and said its hiring has not benefited people in Seattle equally. She said more people of color work at the company’s warehouses than its headquarters, and those jobs lack benefits and opportunities for advancement.
“When we think about innovation and convenience, on whose backs is that innovation and convenience built?” Oliver said. “Oftentimes we don't think about the fulfillment and the workers and the warehouses and what it means to work under certain conditions. Forty thousand high-paying jobs for whom?”
Strickland said as former mayor of Tacoma, she made an offer to host Amazon’s second headquarters and would have been happy to land it.
But she agreed Amazon could improve its hiring of women and people of color at the top. “That’s not unique to Amazon and I don’t say that proudly,” she said. “The tech sector needs to do a better job – more people of color and women on their boards. And hiring people of color who aren’t just working in their fulfillment centers.”
Cary Moon blasted Amazon for killing retail jobs and failing to pay any federal taxes last year. She said the company needs to bring more transparency to its process of choosing a second headquarters.
“These secret negotiations are crap,” she said. “Because they are pitting cities against one another in a race to the bottom. Have the negotiations in public, make the cities share what they’re offering and make Amazon share what they’re asking.”
Oliver said Amazon has actively opposed impact fees and a corporate head tax that would help pay for the consequences of its growth in Seattle.
Daudon said it’s true Amazon has not supported those fees. “But on the other hand Amazon contributed mightily — as did all major employers – to passing the Sound Transit 3 levy. They basically helped to fund that campaign, and that is huge in terms of our growth,” and expanding light rail beyond Seattle, she said.
Daudon said Amazon also worked to pass the state’s new paid family leave law and joined a chamber initiative to close the gender wage gap in King County.
Daudon estimated that in addition to 40,000 direct jobs, Amazon has created 53,000 secondary jobs related to its presence. Audience member Thomas Goldstein said he knows people have been hired at companies like Apex, which manages facilities, and the catering company Gourmondo, for jobs on Amazon's campus.
“No question about it, they provide great jobs for people that are not tech jobs. But those people who are working there are commuting in from Bonney Lake and so far away. We didn’t predict what Amazon’s impact would be for the region," he said.
Goldstein said Jeff Bezos also falls far short of Microsoft founder Bill Gates as a philanthropist. "It's time for Amazon really to step up," he said.
He noted KUOW’s recent report examining Bezos' fortune — it's enough to single-handedly fund Washington state government for three years or buy 160,000 typical Seattle houses. Forbes just named Bezos the richest person on the planet, with Bill Gates coming in second.
Still, Goldstein said he emerged from the debate with a slightly more positive view of Amazon overall.
In the next row, Bensy Benjamin echoed the widespread ambivalence about the company.
“Amazon can do more, I think that’s a fair thing to say. And I think the city is also benefiting from Amazon’s presence in a lot of ways … Lose Amazon? I think that would be catastrophic.”
But as one observer noted on social media, the debate veered between Amazon’s impact on Seattle specifically and larger questions of its effect overall. “The question isn't whether or not Amazon is good for Seattle,” they noted. “It's whether or not Amazon is good for the world.” A debate for another evening.
If you were unable to attend, you'll still be able to hear the event. We'll post it later on Speakers Forum and on our podcast Prime(d): What happens when Amazon comes to your town.