Tag Archives: Amazon

Arlington Welcomes Amazon 5-0 As Crowd Screams

Crowd at Arlington Board meeting Saturday March 16. Source: Arlington Now

The Arlington Board of Supervisors endured six hours of public hearing marked by local hooligans screaming at Amazon company representatives, then voted 5-0 Saturday for the modest local incentive package negotiated to bring the tech giant to a new location near Reagan National Airport and Crystal City.

A review of the final county staff presentation (here) puts the $51 million in identified incentives, spread out over several years, side by side with the $174 million in projected local taxes over the first 12 years, and the $342 million in local taxes over the first 16 years.  Those assume Amazon hits 25,000 employees by around 2030 and 37,850 employees by around 2034, and ultimately occupies 6 million square feet of owned and rented office space.   Continue reading

Amazon in Northern Virginia: 5 Positives

The road to the Silicon Swamp is paved with gold.

1-The Future. In 2011 Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Software is Eating the World.” The eight years since Andreessen’s essay was published have served to vindicate, validate and verify the accuracy of his thesis. Yet while software eats the world, it doesn’t necessarily dine in the same old restaurants.  Car making used to be centered in Detroit. Now Silicon Valley is the new Detroit. Not only are upstarts like Tesla centered in The Valley but traditional car manufacturers are heading west too. As Andreessen noted, traditional non-technology companies all need to become software companies in order to survive. Metropolitan areas with strong software skills will attract not only technology companies but non-technology companies as well. Embrace software or be eaten by it. The future belongs to those who code.

2-Ecosystem. Silicon Valley isn’t Bentonville, Arkansas. No one company dominates Silicon valley and therein lies its enduring strength. The Valley is an economic growth machine fueled by start-ups, spin-outs, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and oceans of venture capital. The idea that NoVa’s benefits from the Amazon deal start and stop with Amazon is myopic. Talented employees will come to National Landing, work for Amazon, and then leave to start new ventures. The 25,000 Amazon jobs should be seen as a starting point rather than a final outcome. In fact, startups founded by Amazon veterans like Fugue are already operating in the area. Continue reading

Amazon Local Incentives Not Worth A Revolution

Artist rendering of possible Crystal City to Reagan National Airport pedestrian bridge. Source: Crystal City Business Improvement District.  Click for larger view.

One of the self-styled revolutionaries seeking to prevent Amazon from planting its second headquarters in Arlington County complains the local incentive package offered is $23 million.  A research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University puts the total at $51 million.  The actual monetary value is elusive and still to be determined.

Both critics appear in a story from the politically-charged “news” outlet The Blaze, showing Amazon’s local incentives are national news.  So far, the much-larger state package, now approved by the 2019 General Assembly, has been the focus.  That was before a band of New Yorkers spit out their piece of Amazon Pie, inspiring Northern Virginians of similar ideological bent to step up a local battle.

UPDATE (2 p.m.):  The Arlington Board of Supervisors is set to vote on its agreement with Amazon on March 16, and here is the draft of the contract, just posted.  Continue reading

Killjoys versus GilJoy: Grievance Versus Opportunity

Gilbert Bland, CEO of the GilJoy Group and the Urban League of Hampton Roads, sees opportunities everywhere.

Northern Virginia progressives opposed to subsidies for Amazon are grievance-mongering nihilists who have nothing to offer but spittle and bile. Far from helping the people they purport to speak for, if they were successful in scuttling the Amazon deal — the Arlington County Board still must vote on county subsidies — they would cause only harm.

Instead of trying to kill the deal, progressive whiners and complainers could be working to capture a share of the  influx of public and private monies for the benefit of Arlington’s poor. An example they could emulate, but never will, is Gilbert T. Bland, chairman of the GilJoy Group and CEO of the Urban League of Hampton Roads, who, according to Virginia Business magazine, is leading initiatives to improve housing, education, health and workforce development for the region’s African-Americans.

But working within the establishment is not how progressives roll. Listen to Roshan Abraham with Our Revolution Arlington, as quoted by NBC News: Continue reading

Amazon as Un-Apple

Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California.

When Apple decided to build a new corporate headquarters, it designed a massive structure that resembled a flying saucer. The facility was an architectural marvel but it was entirely self contained, permitting no interaction with the surrounding community. It was impossible for employees to walk to work from home, and the campus was located far from public transit. For all practical purposes, the only commuting options were riding in cars, vans, and corporate buses.

Amazon might compete with Apple for the title of world’s most valuable company, but Amazon has a very different philosophy regarding real estate and facilities. Think of Amazon’s East Coast headquarters in Arlington and Alexandria as the un-Apple. Amazon does not regard itself as a company apart. To the contrary, the company wants to embed itself into the urban fabric. Here’s how the Washington Business Journal described Amazon’s thinking:

Amazon.com Inc.’s second home in the D.C. region will be a neighborhood — not a campus — of largely locally hired employees who eat at local restaurants and maybe bring their dogs to work, according to Holly Sullivan, who was among the leaders of the e-commerce giant’s HQ2 search.

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Progressives Perpetuating Poverty

Danny Cendejas, an organizer with La ColectiVa, addresses concerns about HQ2. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

Amazon’s decision to scrap a $2.5 billion investment in New York City has emboldened far-left progressives in Northern Virginia to oppose the e-commerce giant’s plans for plans to build an East Coast headquarters in Arlington. Critics of HQ2 are targeting $23 million that Arlington County will contribute to the pot of incentives, reports the Washington Business Journal.

“The county should vote down the deal,” said Roshan Abraham, an organizer with Our Revolution Arlington in an anti-Amazon meeting Monday. One of the richest companies in the world does not need the county’s money, he said. “If Amazon chooses not to come to Arlington over $23 million, good riddance.”

A primary concern among leftist activists is rising rent. As 25,000 highly paid Amazon employees start working in Arlington, they will bid up housing prices. About 3,000 apartment units in Alexandria and Arlington between South Glebe and West Glebe roads could become unaffordable for the largely Latino community living there once Amazon moves in, say Amazon foes.

I sympathize to some degree with those who resent the incentives, including some $500 million in workforce grants from the state. Amazon is the world’s most valuable company, CEO Jeff Bezos is the world’s wealthiest man (at least until his divorce is settled), and the showering of massive tax breaks on Amazon is manifestly unfair. But the world is unfair, and the rational response is not to chase Amazon out of town but to craft a deal that is tax-flow positive for state and local government, and work to ameliorate negative impacts on housing and transportation. To do otherwise is to limit opportunity and perpetuate poverty. Continue reading

The Exact Moment Virginia Changed Forever

For veteran observers of the Virginia General Assembly, a brief oral exchange between an Amazon executive and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday was a bright flash of insight into Virginia’s new political landscape.

You do not see people, especially not people seeking a major expenditure of state funds, get that cavalier with the chair in that committee.  The nervous laughter from the audience that followed, and then lingered for a few seconds, was exactly that:  Laughter from nervous people.

A very big player has arrived on the scene in Virginia.  Everybody else just moved back one or more steps in the pecking order.  Live with it.

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Amazon, Incentives and Alternate Opportunity Cost

Source: Mercatus Center

George Mason University’s Mercatus Center does not like the deals struck by Virginia and New York to split Amazon, Inc.’s $5 billion HQ2 project. In a new commentary, the market-oriented research center raises a valid consideration rarely mentioned by politicians touting favored government expenditures of any type: alternate opportunity cost. Money spent on “A” is money not spent on “B.” Continue reading

Amazon Deal Could Create 59,000 Virginia Jobs

Amazon, Inc.’s $2.5 billion investment in major new East Coast headquarters in Arlington/Alexandria will generate $14.2 billion in economic activity over the next 12 years, projects a new study by Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics. While Amazon has committed to hiring 25,000 employees, indirect effects of the investment will create more than 59,000 jobs.

“The entire state of Virginia will benefit from Amazon’s decision to locate part of its second headquarters in Northern Virginia,” said Christine Chmura, the firm’s CEO and chief economist. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has the story here. Continue reading

Amazon’s New Home in NoVa Will Bolster Private Sector

An Amazon home-delivery drone. Private-sector applications of unmanned systems would fit nicely with Virginia’s economic development priorities.

In the lead-up to Amazon, Inc.’s announcement that it would split its massive HQ2 expansion between Northern Virginia and New York, there was considerable speculation that Northern Virginia had an edge among the 20 finalist regions due to its proximity to the federal government. The company was aggressively vying for federal government business, most visibly in cloud services, and Amazon, like other federal contractors, needed a Washington location in order be close to the world’s biggest customer of IT services.

But Amazon’s decision to locate in Arlington practically next door to the Pentagon is not a federal government play, says Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Furthermore, Virginia is not shelling out an unprecedented $550 million in job-creation inducements by FY 2035 (plus up to $200 million more in later phases) to magnify Northern Virginia’s dependence upon federal government spending.

The Amazon expansion is driven mainly by private-sector initiatives, says Moret, and Virginia’s incentives package is “right in the bulls eye” of Virginia’s strategic goals of diversifying the economy away from the federal government and bolstering the region’s high-tech industry. “For us, this is principally a private-sector diversification opportunity,” he tells Bacon’s Rebellion. “In terms of the jobs we incentivize, no more than 10% can be associated with federal government contracts.”

That’s why the Amazon-Virginia Memorandum of Understanding requires “a certification as to whether more than 10% of the New Jobs at the Facility during the prior calendar year were primarily engaged in supporting Federal Government contracts, and, if so, the percentage of New Jobs so engaged.” If new jobs tied to federal work exceeds 10% in the new facility, they would not be eligible for state employment incentives.

The percentage of federal-related jobs was not a significant issue in negotiations between Amazon and Virginia, Moret says. VEDP included the language as a “safeguard” to advance Virginia’s diversification goal. “We just wanted to make sure that the opportunity we saw would be ensured by the incentive structure.”

Last June Amazon announced a decision to expand the presence of Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Virginia with a new East Coast campus in Herndon. The deal was expected to create 1,500 new jobs in the cloud computing field. The press release from the Governor’s Office described the business this way: “AWS offers over 90 fully featured services for compute, storage, networking, database, analytics, application services, deployment, management, developer, mobile, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), security, hybrid, and enterprise applications, from 42 Availability Zones (AZs) across 16 geographic regions in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and the UK. ”

While AWS was pitching cloud services to Uncle Sam, the list of add-on software applications clearly was aimed at an audience beyond the federal government.

Known primarily as an e-commerce giant and, more recently, as a provider of cloud services, Amazon is expanding into many exciting fields, Moret says. In vying for HQ2, an even bigger investment, VEDP scrutinized the public job postings for Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and found the company was recruiting talent for fields from health care to big data analytics.

Amazon Business, launched in 2012, provides an Amazon.com shopping experience for business supplies. Amazon is expanding its array of consumer electronics products beyond the Kindle e-readers and Echo smart speaker into smartphones TV set-top devices and credit-card readers. The company is pushing into digital streaming of music and games, and with its Whole Foods acquisition is experimenting with the home delivery of groceries. Amazon wants to rationalize the logistics of the health care industry, peddle event tickets online, sell educational toys on a subscription basis, and penetrate the home Internet-of-Things market. (See a list of Amazon products and services here.)

Moret expects new private-sector initiatives will take root in Northern Virginia, enlarging the region’s innovation ecosystem, generating new Amazon business lines, and creating new opportunities for non-Amazon entrepreneurs. Ideally, the new ventures will play to Virginia’s strengths in areas such as unmanned systems, cloud computing, Artificial Intelligence and cyber-security.

Says Moret: “We saw these as big growth opportunities for Virginia.”

Amazon Deal Highlights Virginia’s Competitive Advantage Over Maryland

Many Virginians have qualms about the $550 million in job-creation incentives plus more than $1 billion in promised transportation and higher-ed investments it took to recruit a $2.5 billion Amazon facility to Northern Virginia. But things could be worse. Maryland offered an $8.5 billion package — and didn’t land the deal. The Washington Post is asking if the Old Line State, which pitched a Montgomery County location, has lost its economic-development mojo.

For the record, Maryland officials are putting on a positive face. They are delighted that Montgomery County was one of Amazon’s 20 finalists, and they say that the facility’s location in Arlington/Alexandria will send positive economic ripples throughout the Washington region.

But Montgomery County — the Fairfax of Maryland — has studiously refashioned itself over the past few decades as a walkable urban community with access to abundant mass transit, just the kind of urban fabric Amazon was looking for. The county has access to the same high-tech labor pool as Arlington and Alexandria, which snagged the deal. And the state offered $6 to $7 billion more in inducements than Virginia.

Anirban Basu, chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission, has been asking himself, “Why would Amazon turn away billions of dollars in subsidies to go across the river?”

Experts quoted by the WaPo pointed point to site-specific factors that favored Virginia. National Landing (the rebranded location in Crystal City and Potomac Yard that Amazon selected) is closer to downtown Washington, D.C., and so close to Reagan National Airport that Virginia has offered to build a walkway to link it to the Amazon office complex. National Landing has direct access to a Metro station, which the Commonwealth has offered to upgrade. And most of the property involved in Virginia’s bid is owned by a single developer, JBG Smith.

And who would believe this? Northern Virginia’s transportation infrastructure compares favorably to that of Maryland.

Northern Virginia’s transit and road networks also outpace the Maryland suburb’s. Virginia recently expanded its part of the Capital Beltway with tolled express lanes, and the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line, which will extend the subway to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, is slated to open in 2020.

Finally, Basu cited Virginia’s “creative stroke of genius” in lining up $1.1 billion in higher-education support to build the computer-science talent pipeline. Virginia’s plan includes $250 million toward Virginia Tech building a $1 billion “Innovation Campus” near the future Amazon hub.

I would add another factor not mentioned in the WaPo article. Amazon has a history of working closely with Virginia officials and its largest utility, Dominion Energy, fostering development of Amazon’s cloud-services business in Northern Virginia. The company knows it can get things done in Virginia, whereas Maryland, where it has had little experience, is more of a cipher.

But Maryland’s competitiveness issue runs deeper. “One of the reasons Maryland created such a large incentive package for Amazon is because we know our business climate is not as competitive,” said Basu, whose Baltimore firm, the Sage Policy Group, conducted the state’s economic impact study of Amazon’s potential benefits but was not involved in the bid.

As the WaPo quotes regional economic analyst Stephen S. Fuller, 25 years ago economic activity in the Washington region was split equally among Northern Virginia, Washington and the Maryland suburbs. By last year, Northern Virginia’s share had grown to 48 percent, while the Maryland suburbs held about steady with 31 percent, and Washington had dropped to 21 percent.

Think about that. For all of Northern Virginia’s horrendous problems with traffic congestion, autocentric land uses, skilled labor shortages, lack of a top-tier research university, local-government unfunded pension liabilities, and some of the highest taxes in Virginia, it has been kicking Terrapin butt for two-and-a-half decades as measured by job creation. Writes the WaPo:

[Basu] has concluded that Amazon must have rejected the state’s “antiquated” regulations and higher taxes for corporations and top-earning residents. Amazon has said salaries at the new headquarters will average $150,000. Unlike in Virginia, Maryland jurisdictions impose a local income tax in addition to the state tax.

According to the Tax Foundation, Virginia is has a more favorable tax climate than Maryland almost across the board.

Personal income taxes
Virginia ranked 35th
Maryland ranked 45th

Corporate taxes
Virginia ranked 10th
Maryland ranked 22nd

Sales taxes
Virginia ranked 10th
Maryland ranked 18th

Property taxes
Virginia ranked 30th
Maryland ranked 42nd

Only in “unemployment insurance taxes” does Maryland compare favorably to Virginia, with a 28th ranking compared to Virginia’s 43rd.

Bottom line: Virginians get to keep more of their paychecks. When you’re  a company recruiting high-end business and technical talent, that counts for a lot.

Update: I have edited the original version of this story to distinguish between Virginia’s “incentives” paid directly to Amazon and state and local promises to invest in transportation and higher-ed.

Where Will 30,000 More Tech Degrees Come From?

There are many moving parts to the Amazon, Inc., deal to invest $2.5 billion and hire 25,000 employees in Northern Virginia. In one of the most important deliverables, the Commonwealth has committed to increase the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and related fields by 25,000 to 35,000 over and above the already-ambitious baseline forecast over the next two decades.

Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), says the goal is achievable but it won’t be easy. The number of students graduating from Virginia high schools is not forecast to increase substantially in the near future. If the baseline student population isn’t increasing, where will the IT degree seekers come from?

He sees four places to find the students to earn those degrees.

  • More college-ready high school graduates. On average about 72% of Virginia high school graduates continue their education at college-level institutions. One way to increase the number of tech-degree seekers is to boost the percentage of high school graduates who pursue higher education.
  • Improved college retention. Only 70% of the students who enter college manage to earn a degree within six years. Virginia can bolster the talent pipeline by reducing the college dropout rate, thereby increasing the retention rate.
  • Improved “recovery” of college dropouts. Tens of thousands of Virginians have earned college credits but failed to earn degrees or credentials. Potentially, the higher-ed system can coax some of these college dropouts back into school to complete their degrees.
  • More out-of-state students. If all else fails, Virginia can increase admittance of out-of-state students into Virginia higher-ed institutions.

“We have to step up in each of those areas,” Blake says. “Business as usual won’t get us there.”

The deal makers negotiating the Amazon package anticipated some of these issues. The Governor’s website explains how it expects to build Virginia’s talent pipeline.

  • Bachelor’s degrees. To expand the number of bachelor’s degrees, the Commonwealth will establish a performance-based tech talent investment fund, with General Assembly approval. This fund will enable higher education institutions across Virginia to receive startup funds for faculty recruitment, state capital investment (where required), and enrollment funding to expand the number of bachelor’s degrees the institutions confer annually in computer science and closely related fields (e.g., computer engineering).
  • Master’s degrees. To expand the number of master’s degrees, the Commonwealth plans investments of up to $375 million for academic space and operational support over the next 20 years. These performance-based, master’s degree investments will be provided to George Mason University for its Arlington campus and Virginia Tech for a new campus expected to be located in Alexandria.  Those institutions must match the state commitment dollar-for-dollar.
  • K-12. Virginia will invest $25 million in the K-12 STEM and computer science experience for students and teachers over the next 20 years.

Blake offers no comment on whether those resources will be adequate. Legislators will have to decide whether they will be adequate. Here’s my concern: The General Assembly can set aside money to increase the institutional capacity to provide ~30,000 more advanced degrees, but that’s no guarantee that the so-called “talent pipeline” starting with K-12 schools can increase the supply of students with the aptitude and desire to earn those demanding technical degrees.

If Virginia can’t develop enough home-grown talent to fulfill the demand, Blake suggests, colleges and universities may have to consider recruiting out-of-state students more aggressively. In that case, legislators may have to re-consider the out-of-state enrollment caps it has placed on some institutions.

The good news, says Blake, is that SCHEV reports key metrics — number of degrees granted, college dropout rates, out-of-state students enrolled, and the like. Legislators will be able to see if Virginia stays on track to meet its 20-year targets, and they should have time to make any needed mid-course adjustments.

The Administration’s Defense of $550 Million in Amazon Employment Subsidies

Incentives language in Amazon RFP

Critics of Virginia’s deal with Amazon, Inc., have focused on the $550 million in job-creation subsidies as a grotesque example of corporate welfare, crony capitalism, or whatever you want to call it. I totally sympathize. The richest company in the world doesn’t need public subsidies. Moreover, given all the assets Virginia offered — a prime walkable-urbanism site in Washington’s metropolitan core, access to mass transit, one of the nation’s largest pools of high-tech labor, and a promise to invest billions building Virginia’s talent pipeline — some might think that Virginia didn’t need to give away so much money.

However, Stephen Moret, president of the Virginia Economic Development partnership and Virginia’s lead negotiator, argues that the subsidies were necessary to win the biggest economic-development deal in recent U.S. history. Amazon’s RFP made it as transparent as a Victoria’s Secret negligee that the company expected incentives to help it offset the up-front cost of its investment. States the RFP:

Incentives offered by the state/province and local communities to offset initial capital outlay and ongoing operational costs will be significant factors in the decision-making process. …

Identify incentive programs available for the Project at the state/province and local levels. And outline the type of incentive (i.e. land, site preparation, tax credits/exemptions, relocation grants, workforce grants, utility incentives/grants, permitting, and fee reductions) and the amount. The initial cost and ongoing cost of doing business are critical decision drivers.

Virginia’s goal in economic development projects like this is to reduce incentives to an absolute minimum — ideally zero, says Moret. But in this case, Virginia’s economic-development team knew it was competing with states who were willing to give away the store. New Jersey offered $5 billion to $7 billion in direct incentives.

It’s hard to gauge the competitiveness of other offers in Amazon’s site-location calculus, so state officials could do no more than make an educated guess as to how much Virginia needed to offer to snag the deal.

“You can never know the break point. The company always knows more than we do,” says Moret. “It’s hard to reverse-engineer their thinking.”

As a practical matter, Virginia had to put something on the table, Moret says. The state previously had agreed to provide $70 million to Micron Technology, Inc., to win a $3 billion, 1,100-employee expansion of its semiconductor facility in Manassas. “It would be hard to offer Amazon nothing after what we’ve done in the past.” On a dollars-per-job basis, Virginia’s incentives are less than what it provided other premier headquarters, such as Northrop Grumman, he adds. Given the state’s track record, to deny Amazon an incentive would have signaled that Virginia was not serious about the deal.

Another key point, says Moret, is that Virginia structured the deal to ensure that it is cash-flow positive for the state budget. Virginia makes the first incentive payment five years from now — long after Amazon begins hiring and generating tax revenue.

In past posts questioning the necessity of the subsidies, I have quoted Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne as saying, “Incentives didn’t really drive the decision. At the end of the day, it was the workforce development and education pieces, which we already had decided were going to happen regardless.”

In an email, Layne provides context to that statement:

Even though [incentives] did not drive the deal, remember we wanted to have a real public/private partnership with Amazon. That requires “skin in the game” for both parties in order to show commitment to make the deal happen. We were very careful to make sure our direct incentives were payable only “after” Amazon incremental revenues are realized by the Commonwealth.  We can debate the level of incentives, but on a per job basis they are moderate when compared to previous incentives.

You are correct, only Amazon knows their ultimate importance in their decision.  I only know we are comfortable with how we structured our total incentive package. We believe it is good for Virginia and we have properly protected our taxpayers in relation to the upside benefits we expect for years to come.

How Walkable Urbanism and the Talent Pipeline Won the Amazon Deal

Conceptual rendering of Virginia Tech’s proposed $1 billion campus in Alexandria near the proposed Amazon campus.

More information is coming out about the wheeling and dealing behind Virginia’s incentive package that coaxed Amazon, Inc., to locate a $2.5 billion campus in Northern Virginia. It turns out that many of the key pieces in Virginia’s incentive package were initiatives that had been in the works for years. Virginia is putting resources into projects that, most likely, it would have funded eventually anyway.

Amazon wanted an urban location and it selected the Crystal City-Potomac Yard area of Arlington and Alexandria, currently being rebranded by the largest property owner, JBG Smith, as National Landing. A decade ago JBG Smith had commenced the yeoman’s work, with no immediate prospect of reward, of winning the local planning and regulatory approvals to re-develop the aging edge city into a walkable, high-density, mixed-use area — just the kind of urbanism Amazon was looking for.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech had engaged in preliminary planning to build a major academic campus in Northern Virginia. The idea was mainly conceptual when Amazon announced his national HQ2 competition, but Tech had a scaffold upon which to build when the state began scrambling to put a deal together.

It helped that Commonwealth’s point man for selling Amazon, Stephen Moret, was not a conventional economic developer. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership president takes a broad, integrative approach to the profession that transcends the assembly of real estate deals. Having recently earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in higher education management and serving as a member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Moret is well versed in the critical need to build the talent pipeline. He is also conversant about the connections between land use, workforce, innovation districts and economic development.

I haven’t talked to Moret since the Amazon deal was closed. But I recall a conversation a year-and-a-half ago in which he casually blue-skyed an idea for promoting corporate investment in Southwest Virginia by creating a New Urbanism-style development zone around the campus of the University of Virginia-Wise. In that vision, the real estate was almost incidental. Moret’s idea was to create a knowledge-based community with access to UVa-Wise students and graduates that a corporate investor would find attractive.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Amazon project is the same idea writ large — very large. The $550 million in direct employment subsidies constitutes only a modest piece of the deal. What really sold Amazon on Northern Virginia was the prospect of setting its corporate facility (a) in a walkable urban community, (b) in close proximity to a technology-oriented university campus, (c) in order to create a dynamic innovation ecosystem with Amazon at the center, (d) in a metro area with one of the largest tech-savvy labor pools in the country.

Building the talent pipeline. Both the Roanoke Times and the Washington Post have published articles highlighting how the educational piece of the incentives package came together.

As the Roanoke Times writes, Virginia Tech’s proposal to build a $1 billion, one-million-square-foot campus near the Amazon facility was the cornerstone of the talent-recruitment piece of Virginia’s bid.

Virginia Tech had been planning some sort of campus near the nation’s capital since President Tim Sands arrived at the university four years ago. Tech didn’t have a location in mind or much more than a general sense of what the Innovation Campus could be.

“If the first time we had thought about it had been 14 months ago, this probably wouldn’t be what it is,” Sands said during the gauntlet of interviews after Tuesday’s announcement. “We were ready and the timing was perfect.”

Moret was unaware of Sands’ Northern Virginia ambitions when he first reached out to schedule a conference call with college and university leaders around the state last year.

He discussed the HQ2 bid with everyone and laid out early plans to roughly double the number of computer science graduates the state produced each year as part of the HQ2 bid.

He also asked if anyone was interested in the possibility of opening a campus near Amazon in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Virginia Tech reached out right away and said, ‘Hey, we’ve actually been working on this idea for a few years. And we’re prepared to put in a very large investment to make this happen,’” Moret recalled.

George Mason University also stepped up in a big way with plans to expand its Arlington campus. But the GMU campus will not be tightly integrated geographically with Amazon’s like Tech’s will be.

Crystal City rendering by Torti Gallas + Partners

Investing in walkable urbanism. Writing for the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Public Square Journal,  Robert Steuteville provides background on the urban planning piece of the deal.

Crystal City can be thought of as a large suburban retrofit—guided by a plan and form-based code that won a 2009 CNU Charter Award for Torti Gallas + Partners and Kimley-Horn and Associates. That plan and code, adopted by the county in 2010, entitled the new, higher-density development and put in place a framework to create a more walkable urban neighborhood over time.  …

The area was originally built without a master plan, and that changed with the recent master plan. “It’s high-rise suburban. It wants to be higher density, with a more urban mentality— away from cars and with retail on the street that is accessible to people,” says John Torti of Torti Gallas. “It has the potential of becoming a wonderful place.”

Steuteville’s article provides the following graphic comparing a mile-long segment of Rt. 1 as it looks now with the plan transform it into a more walkable, urban boulevard:

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The Political Calculations Behind the Amazon Package

Governor Ralph Northam touted the Amazon deal at a press conference last week.

Michael Martz has done an excellent job reporting on the political factors that shaped the incentive package that induced Amazon, Inc., to select Crystal City-Potomac Yard in Northern Virginia along with New York City to co-host its massive expansion. The article illuminates the critical role of the little-known Major Employment and Investment Project Approval Commission (MEI), in forging the incentives.

As its name suggests, the legislative commission provides oversight of incentives for economic-development projects, and its input was essential for a project that would require budget approval for an estimated $1.85 billion in state expenditures on direct incentives, transportation projects, and higher-ed funding.

While Stephen Moret, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) was the administration’s point man on the deal, it is apparent from Martz’ reporting that state Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne was a key player in the negotiations. “VEDP’s role was to get the deal done,” Layne told the Times-Dispatch. “My role was to make sure we were partners and kept in communication with MEI and the money committees.

Crafting the Amazon deal required political calculations on how to sell the biggest incentive package in the history of Virginia to the General Assembly. One MEI member, House Finance Chairman Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, resigned from the commission in February in protest of the immense size of the incentives offered the e-commerce giant, the biggest company (by market value) on the planet. At least one other member, Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, remained undecided until negotiations coughed up $250 million in state funds toward creation of Virginia Tech’s proposed $1 billion Innovation Campus next to the Amazon campus.

Some of the key political considerations:

Cash flow positive. The $550 million in job-creation incentives for Amazon was structured so that state payments to Amazon will be delayed until after income- and sales-tax revenue from the new jobs roll into the state treasury. That way, the deal will be cash-flow positive for the state from year one.

Sustained Metro funding. Amazon was a significant factor in the General Assembly’s decision in the 2018 session to contribute $154 million a year as Virginia’s share for the recapitalization of the decrepit Washington Metro mass transit system. Access to mass transit was a key consideration for Amazon. Said Jason Miller, executive director of the Greater Washington Partnership: “It was a pretty clear signal that because of the importance of the system to both the economy and Amazon, the region can come together and tackle its most pressing issues.”

More STEM degrees. The General Assembly also committed $28 million this year to boost production of undergraduate degrees in computer science and other technical fields as well as $25 million to the CyberX cyber-security education initiative to strengthen Virginia’s technology talent pipeline. In Layne’s estimation the educational commitments may have been more important to Amazon than the direct incentives for job creation. “Incentives didn’t really drive the decision,” said Layne. “At the end of the day, it was the workforce development and education pieces, which we already had decided were going to happen regardless.”

NoVa transportation money only. The Commission made it clear that funds designated for transportation improvements around the Amazon site would not come from general transportation funds. Instead, the state will tap federal transportation dollars restricted to Northern Virginia and toll-concession revenues from the Interstate 95 express lanes. “It was not taking any money from anyone else in the commonwealth — that was key,” said Layne.

Affordable housing a local responsibility. The commission balked at a proposal to offer $100 million in state subsidies to maintain affordable housing in Northern Virginia. Both legislators and the administration agreed that housing was the proper role of local governments and private developers.

Splitsville. Amazon’s decision to split the HQ2 project — a total of $5 billion in investments and 50,000 jobs — between Northern Virginia and New York City actually made the deal more attractive for Virginia. Said House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk: “We felt that it was a better fit for us because it was more digestible.”