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Amazon On My Mind: Is Rhode Island Really A State For Sale?

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Transformative: In this artist's rendering on what an Amazon campus might look like in downtown Providence dwarfs the Rhode Island State House (center).
R.I. For Amazon

Last week, the State of Rhode Island released a new set of architectural renderings included in its pitch for Amazon’s much-coveted second corporate headquarters. Now, when company executives sift through the more than 230 proposals they’ve received, they’ll see a computer-generated image of Providence where the state capitol building — a century-old architectural treasure designed by McKim, Mead, and White — is surrounded, and towered over, by new Amazon buildings.

As if the symbolism of those renderings isn’t clear enough, the welcome image on the state’s sales-pitch website — riforamazon.us — is an outline of the Ocean State stamped with the Amazon logo. And if the message still isn’t clear, a bit further down on the site is a video of Governor Gina Raimondo (a former venture capitalist) telling Amazon execs that if they choose Lil’ Rhody, “You'd have the access, influence and impact that come from being a dominant employer in our state.”

As a Rhode Islander, I want the state to succeed as much as anybody else; heaven knows we desperately need economic development victories. And in a state where the top employers rarely break 10,000 jobs — Lifespan employs 12,080, CVS Health employs 7,800, Citizens Bank and General Dynamics Electric Boat both employ around 5,000 — this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. According to Amazon, the new complex is a $5 billion construction project that, once completed, will be “a full equal to Amazon’s current campus in Seattle, creating as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs.”

But I have questions. A lot of them.

To start, what happens to the buildings that currently occupy the soon-to-be-developed-by-Amazon land in those renderings? As far as I can tell, there’s no footnote explaining what will happen to the substantial buildings that house the Department of Administration, Department of Transportation, Department of Health, and Division of Taxation, if Amazon picks us as its new second home. I guess we’ll figure that out later.

Also, as a state infamous for corruption and insider dealing, do we really want to use the words “access” and “influence” in our sales pitch? Rather than trying to ditch the bad rep, it seems we’re simply transitioning from Crimetown (the smash hit podcast about Rhode Island corruption) to Corporatetown. In 1905, the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote, “Rhode Island was, and it is, a State for sale.” The Amazon pitch makes you wonder how much things have really changed.

And, speaking of messaging, what’s with the word “dominant”? Call me naive, but I thought no person or company, no matter how rich or powerful or job-creating, is supposed to “dominate” in a democracy. In this case, it seems our state officials are actually factoring our small-state vulnerability into the sales pitch.

It all makes me wonder if we’ve learned anything from the last time we tried to jumpstart our economy by wooing a dazzling out-of-state tech company. I realize Amazon is hardly comparable to Curt Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios, which we lured with a publicly-backed $75 million loan, but after the (highly foreseeable) boondoggle that resulted, I thought Rhode Islanders had reached a consensus about the wisdom of diversifying our economic-development resources. But with Amazon, it seems we’ve simply found a bigger horse to hitch our wagon to. This worries me.

And what kind of a message does it send to our young people? While economic development officials are aggressively courting Amazon, our public schools need $2.2 billion in repairs. Where are the renderings for fancy new schools? Where are the promises of “access” and “influence” for public school students and their families? Are they less deserving than Jeff Bezos?

And have officials done their homework on Amazon? Sure, it’s an amazingly successful company; nobody’s arguing with that. But it’s nearly as famous for bullying publishers, “brutal” warehouse conditions, and a “bruising” corporate culture as it is for its Prime service. And the arrival of a corporate headquarters is by no means a simple win-win. Seattle-based New York Times columnist Timothy Egan recently wrote a piece called “How Amazon Took Seattle’s Soul” describing how median home prices have doubled in five years, how Amazon is “secretive,” and how its presence fundamentally changed the city’s character. If this has already happened in city of 700,000, what happens to a city of 180,000 like Providence? Or, overall, in Rhode Island, which boasts barely over a million people?

To me, the underlying question is whether winning Amazon is worth losing the thing that makes us distinct: our state’s legendary independence. Roger Williams founded the place after being banished from Massachusetts for “new and dangerous opinions” about separating church and state. We were the first state to declare independence from Great Britain, and 140 years later, the only state to refuse to ratify alcohol prohibition. Brown University, our Ivy league school, is famous for its lack of a core curriculum, and Rhody is also home to the world’s most famous showcase of musical improvisation, the Newport Jazz Festival. The statue atop the State House is literally called the “Independent Man.”

And yet it seems that, with this pitch, we’re putting that independence up for sale. The website, the renderings, and the video are all linked by a not-so-subtle promise of subservience. Come build a corporate fortress around our state capitol! Come stamp your corporate logo wherever you want! Come “influence” and “dominate” us!

Which brings me to my last question. If we win the Amazon Sweepstakes and construct those buildings around the State House, will anyone still be able to see the Independent Man?

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