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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

New York residents protest against new Amazon headquarters fearing online giant will force locals from homes

Taxpayers expected to fork out $325 million in direct grants to company

Protesters gather in Long Island City to say "No" to the Amazon "HQ2" decision. AFP
Protesters gather in Long Island City to say "No" to the Amazon "HQ2" decision. AFP

Demonstrators briefly occupied an Amazon Books store in New York on Monday amid growing fears that the online giant will force locals from their homes with an influx of highly skilled workers when the company opens its new headquarters.

It was one of two protests held on Cyber Monday to express anger at how billions of dollars in city money is being spent to attract a company owned by Jeff Bezos, named this year as the richest man on the planet.

Campaigners first gathered outside the Manhattan shop to make their point.

But when they realised the doors were open, they simply walked inside chanting: “Who’s city? Our city.”

Police were called but just observed until the protest dispersed after about 30 minutes.

Community groups and residents then convened in Long Island City, close to the proposed site in the borough of Queens.

Brent O’Leary, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 11 years and is president of the Hunters Point Civic Association, said the selected location was already thriving and had some of the most sought after real estate in the country.

“This neighbourhood has been sold out,” he said. “We don’t think Amazon should replace our neighbourhood with 25,000 people coming here and using our tax dollars to do it.”

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Earlier this month Amazon announced the result of its year-long search for a second headquarters to stand alongside Seattle. Cities across America had offered tax breaks and infrastructure development plans as they scrambled for a piece of its lucrative profits.

Some 238 cities, states and towns took part. Business leaders in Calgary even offered to change the city’s name to Calmazon.

In the end the company decided to have 50,000 employees at two sites – one in New York and one in Arlington, a suburb of Washington DC.

That decision brought an immediate backlash. Sceptics sensed a stunt, given there will be two sites instead of a new HQ2, and that both are already well-connected locations rather than neglected corners of America.

Even so, it marks a jobs windfall for New York. The state’s governor and city’s mayor, who rarely see eye to eye, have both welcomed Amazon and its plans.

“This is a big moneymaker for us,” said Andrew Cuomo, the governor, on WNYC radio. “It costs us nothing — nada, niente, goose egg. We make money doing this.”

New York City Councillor Jimmy Van Bramer, center, speaks during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organisations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in the New York neighborhood of Long Island City, Queens. AP
New York City Councillor Jimmy Van Bramer, center, speaks during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organisations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in the New York neighborhood of Long Island City, Queens. AP

In fact, taxpayers will fork out $325 million in direct grants to the company. The deal also envisages some $1.2 billion in state tax credits and $1 billion in additional incentives from the city.

And residents wonder what’s in it for them. Will people living in Queens – a borough known as the first destination of many arriving immigrants - really be able to find jobs or will college-educated programmers from elsewhere flood in?

Peter Montalbano, an organiser with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said without plans for education programmes there seemed little chance locals would be able to get anything other than jobs as janitors.

He has a more personal concern. He has lived in nearby Sunnyside for 11 years and fears he and his roommates will no longer be able to afford to stay if the neighbourhood sees an influx of well-paid Amazon employees.

“The neighbourhood has changed a lot since I’ve been there but not at the same pace as other parts of the city,” he said. “The fear is that Amazon coming here is going to accelerate that.”

The property market is already hotting up. A $3m apartment in Long Island City that languished unsold for six months sold within days of the announcement.

What particularly rankled, added Mr Montalbano, was that the city and state had found the money to offer incentives to a company headed by the richest man in the world.

He said: “They say there’s not enough money for affordable housing, transport…but there’s enough for Jeff Bezos’ helipad.”