Amazon, welcome to Central New York (Commentary)

Posted on May 26, 2020

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Christian Wiediger Rymh7ezpqrs Unsplash

Robert Simpson is president of CenterState CEO, an economic development strategist, business leadership organization and chamber of commerce dedicated to the success of its members and the prosperity of the Central New York region.

By Robert Simpson | Special to Syracuse.com

What a shame that the very first letter to the editor following the historic announcement that Amazon would create more than 1,000 jobs in our backyard amidst the greatest economic crisis in history was not a “welcome to Central New York,” but rather an inaccurate, misleading and inflammatory reflection of the cynical and pessimistic mentality that has only served to hold our region back in the past (“Onondaga County is getting played by Jeff Bezos, Amazon,” May 20, 2020).

Thankfully, those views no longer reflect the voices of leadership and progress in our community. So let’s try this again.

Last week, I proudly joined Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and other local leaders to announce Amazon’s impending arrival to Central New York. The announcement of Amazon as the tenant of the $350 million, 3.8-million-square-foot state-of-the-art fulfillment center under construction in the town of Clay is a cause for celebration.

This once-in-a generation opportunity is a remarkable validation of our collective vision and efforts, and demonstrative of where Central New York is heading, even amidst this economic crisis. In addition to 1,000 new full-time jobs for our community at a time when the unemployment rate has skyrocketed above 15%, the project will drive $400 million of new payroll over 10 years. These jobs pay a minimum of $15 an hour, with higher wages for some roles.

As a point of fact, 75% of the entry-level positions in Central New York have starting salaries at or below Amazon’s $30,000 per year, including many in fields like the arts, media, education, social services, food service, maintenance, office administrative support, healthcare and sales. Amazon also provides full health insurance, 20 weeks of parental leave and continuing education and training programs, even if those opportunities for advancement aren’t at the Amazon facility.

Additionally, this project is rooted in strategy. We have long advocated for and pursued opportunities to draw a major warehouse and logistics facility to the region, given our strategic location and other warehouse and distribution assets. Further, Central New York’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative calls for investing in this industry, aligning job demand with available workers, addressing the skills gap, and locating jobs in proximity to public transit.

The importance of enabling more of our region’s available workforce to directly benefit from these employment opportunities cannot be overstated, and was a primary topic of conversation with Amazon from the beginning. Creating good-paying, accessible jobs with a low barrier to entry for the un- and underemployed in our community, at a location connected to Centro bus routes, are key measures to achieving that goal.

The partnership and collaboration to ensure the success of this project have been astounding. I am not only proud of the role that CenterState CEO has played, but I am grateful to our community partners, and in particular County Executive McMahon, who rallied to bring this project to fruition. Collectively, we endeavored to learn and de-conflict the potential challenges projects like these often face and established our community as a committed partner. Our ability to demonstrate a strong local team unified in its support of the project and working toward a shared vision helped ensure our success.

Contrary to the author’s suggestion, there was no “cronyism” by local elected officials or arm-twisting or brow-beating on behalf of Amazon. Having personally participated in all of these many conversations, I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, what transpired was a detailed and collaborative exploration of mutual goals and objectives and a lot of hard, honest work.

In more than two decades, there has not been a single project with this level of private-sector investment within our region. And while intelligent people can disagree about the relative size of the PILOT agreement, it is important to understand that the IDA provides an abatement of tax, not a reduction of existing taxes. The project will generate $27 million more in new tax revenue over 15 years for local municipalities than the golf course upon which it is being built would have. This new revenue is now all the more critical to maintaining local municipal and school district operations given current projected tax shortfalls resulting from Covid-19.

For far too long, this community has watched promising opportunities pass us by. Now, we are in the enviable position of welcoming a project of incredible scale during one of the worst global economic downturns ever. That is a welcome bright spot, and one our whole community should be proud of.

The conditions that allowed our community to compete for, and win, this major investment — strong partnerships and local leadership, a talented workforce, sound economic development strategies focused on our regional assets and a rejection of our past cynicism — still exist today. It is these conditions that give me great hope for a positive economic outlook for our community.

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