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Backlash in NY after bagging Amazon HQ deal

Governor and mayor doing damage control because of strong opposition to the deal, which could total US$3 billion in state and city incentives for Amazon

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Mr Van Bramer, left, and Mr Gianaris rallying near the planned Amazon HQ site in Long Island City on Nov 14. They said state officials had invited them to join an as-yet-unannounced community advisory committee that would provide input on planning but would have no ultimate veto.

New York City

AFTER announcing a deal to bring an Amazon headquarters to New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio might have expected to be taking a victory lap, having beaten out hundreds of other elected leaders from around the country who also wanted to boast about new jobs in their region.

Instead, they have spent the last week doing damage control. So far, it isn't working.

On Tuesday, two of the most outspoken critics of the deal, state Senator Michael Gianaris and city councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, said that state officials had invited them to join an as-yet-unannounced community advisory committee that would provide input on planning but would have no ultimate veto.

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They refused. "They are trying very hard to move from announcement to implementation, and we do not accept the announcement," Mr Gianaris said of how he believes the state, the city and Amazon moved to complete the deal.

"That's why we're not participating in this charade."

Mr Van Bramer took a similar view. "I think it's going to help get us what we want," he said of his refusal to join the committee. "Because what we want is to stop this bad deal."

Both men represent Long Island City, the neighbourhood in Queens where Amazon agreed to set up new offices and where Mr Gianaris and Mr Van Bramer said there has been strong opposition to the deal, which could total US$3 billion in state and city incentives for the highly-valued company.

Critics have complained that the negotiations, held secretly between top officials from the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations, did not solicit the views of people who live in Long Island City, the semi-industrial neighbourhood that has grown rapidly in recent years.

Many residents were angered after the presentation of the deal last week at a news conference, leading to at least one protest.

Those in favour of the agreement, politicians and residents, have said that the economic benefits from the deal would far outstrip the cost in tax breaks and a US$500 million state grant that were offered to Amazon.

The rollout suffered, said one person familiar with the negotiations, because state and city officials were told only 18 hours before the official announcement that the deal was done.

In recent days, Mr de Blasio and Mr Cuomo have appeared on radio and television promoting the large number of jobs that could result from the deal and aggressively rebutting the argument by some critics that Amazon would have come to New York City without government inducements. Each has written an essay in defence of the deal.

State officials are promising to hold a public meeting about Amazon next month.

Mr Cuomo, in an essay on his state website, wrote that while he appreciated "the anxiety of the neighbouring community", that the "answer for a smart society is not to stop growing but rather to manage the growth", something he said that the deal accomplished.

He lambasted opponents for whom "symbolism reigns over reality" and lashed out at media organisations, including The New York Times, that have written critical editorials but have also benefited from tax incentives in the past.

Mr De Blasio, in the Daily News, wrote that not only should New Yorkers be proud of the deal, but so should his base of political progressives - some of whom have been openly critical of the mayor.

Meanwhile, state and city officials have been quietly trying to cajole opponents into supporting the deal.

"It's fair to say that some regret was expressed about how things were handled" during the rollout of the Amazon deal, said Mr Van Bramer, describing his meeting on Monday with top officials from the state's economic development arm, Empire State Development.

Amazon, too, has reached out to Mr Van Bramer and Mr Gianaris to set up a meeting. (Mr Gianaris said he had already turned them down.)

The community advisory committee is required as part of the state-run process being used to develop the waterfront land along the East River where Amazon will build a headquarters. The committee could not alter the incentive package, but it could have a say in the shape of the buildings that will house Amazon.

In Long Island, a similar committee helped limit the height of a new hotel as part of a development near the Belmont racetrack.

Eric Phillips, Mr de Blasio's press secretary, said that City Hall remains "committed to engaging local stakeholders."

Catherine Nolan, the state assemblywoman who represents Long Island City, said she was in favour of the community's involvement, even if she did not back every part of the Amazon deal.

"Obviously I'm not for the heliport. Nobody is for the heliport," she said of helicopter landing rights included in the deal for Amazon's chief executive, Jeff Bezos.

She said she would advocate for community meeting space, walk-in access for job applicants and no employee cafeteria - so Amazon workers could be encouraged to eat in the neighbourhood. NYTIMES