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The Hidden Factor in Amazon’s Search for a New Headquarters: Support for Gay Rights

Amazon executives recently toured Dallas, one of 20 finalists for a second company headquarters, and local officials bragged about its growing workforce and low taxes — a perfect match for 50,000 planned Amazon jobs.

But the local team also brought a surprising guest: the Reverend Neil Cazares-Thomas, the pastor at a predominantly gay megachurch in Dallas. He emphasized how inclusive and welcoming the  Dallas-Forth Worth community has been to him, his husband and the 4,000 members of his congregation.

In the national competition to become Amazon’s second home, that maneuver was probably a good call.  Even though the company’s search materials don’t say it directly, Amazon has quietly made gay and transgender rights a key criteria in choosing a second headquarters, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

The company has also told glamazon, an LGBTQ affinity group of Amazon employees, that Amazon would keep their interests in mind when selecting HQ2.

As Amazon executives recently toured finalist locations to help select what they’ve dubbed HQ2, they asked public officials about what sort of “compatible cultural and community environment” — the wording from the company’s search parameters — each city offers, adding to speculation about whether Amazon will choose a liberal stronghold.

In North Carolina, company representatives asked pointed questions of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper about several state policies such as the “bathroom bill,” which restricted the use of public facilities by transgender people, according to a person in the room. In another city, an Amazon executive groaned at the mention of proposed legislation in Georgia that would restrict funding for same-sex adoption, according to another person who attended the meeting between the company and state and local officials.

Given the high profile and substantial economic impact of the deal, including up to $5 billion in capital expenditures, Amazon’s emphasis on gay and transgender rights could increase pressure on policymakers who haven’t been willing to implement equal-rights rules or have passed discriminatory laws.

Yet in highlighting a social issue in its hunt for a new location, Amazon also risks alienating conservative political leaders, including President Trump, who has attacked the company for its tax rates and its contract with the U.S. Postal Service, which delivers the majority of its orders.

Controversial bill

The sponsor of the Georgia bill, Republican Senator William Ligon Jr., stated that the issue of same-sex adoption wasn’t meant to be discriminatory. In fact, he argued that the legislation would be a benefit to children since church-based adoption agencies could close if they were required to provide service to same-sex couples.

Ligon said he hoped any company would support the bill.

“If you’re against, then I think we need to think hard about whether you ought to come here,” he said. “We need to seriously consider whether we want you to come here.”

That position hasn’t played well at Amazon, according to one member of the tour with Amazon as it meets with local officials. “I just think Atlanta’s out,” said the person, who is not an Amazon employee.

Major economic prize

Amazon’s second headquarters project is the biggest economic-development prize — by a longshot — that many industry veterans say they have ever seen. The company notes that over the years it has been located in Seattle, it has invested $3.7 billion and paid more than $25 billion in salaries. For HQ2, the company estimates it will provide jobs to as many as 50,000 people, make $5 billion in capital investments and fill 8 million square feet of office space, which would be even bigger than the Pentagon.

So far Amazon is not making public any details of its meetings, and it requires nondisclosure agreements from bidders; however its talks with local officials have already driven them to propose changes in an effort to seduce the company to their region. Some areas are even pressing ahead with airport expansions or improvements they feel could impress Amazon. Others have pitched the idea of new partnerships with colleges and universities that could supply it with a reliable stream of workers.

Not long after Amazon spoke with officials in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. (all three of these areas were finalists for HQ2), the jurisdictions made good on promises for $500 million in annual funds for the aging Metro system — and this followed a decade of squabbling over who should pay.

When asked about Amazon’s interest in the region, Bob Buchanan, chairman of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp said “The excitement and the possibility is making good things happen for this region in regard to Metro, in regard to public-private cooperation, how to attract and retain workforce, how to improve quality of life and educational potential.”

Yet emphasizing LGBT issues does pose some risk for the $750 billion company. As Delta Air Lines learned earlier this year when it cancelled a discount for National Rifle Association members (leading Georgia officials to withdraw the firm a tax break), a conflict over social issues can muddy negotiations for public subsidies, something Amazon is actively seeking.

Yet even is Amazon’s active support of gay rights tweaks conservatives, LGBT advocates argue that the company actually isn’t going far enough.

One group sent feedback to Bezos requesting that he eliminate and location that hasn’t yet passed comprehensive legal protections for people based on their sexuality or gender.

In the end, experts predict that Amazon will choose the location that’s best for its bottom line. And if Bezos really wanted to advance the issue, he should bring Amazon someplace where equal rights have not progressed as far as Seattle: “My personal view is, if they care about making a difference, they should go where they can make a difference.”

Views in the business community seem to confirm this. A recent poll of Texas business leaders showed that over sixty percent thought the debate over transgender bathrooms has hurt the state’s ability to attract and retain employees. The state Legislature defeated a version of the bill last year.

When Amazon recently visited the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Cazares-Thomas explained how at home he’d felt in the city after he relocated from Los Angeles, even though he’d initially been nervous about raising a family as a gay man in Texas. Cazares-Thomas and the Dallas Regional Chamber, which is handling the bid for HQ2, declined to comment on the search.

But according to an anonymous source in the meeting, Amazon’s “reaction was really positive. It introduced them to a side of the community that they weren’t aware of,” the person said. “They came in with some preconceived notions of what Dallas is, some of them accurate but some of them in need of a little updating.”

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