Community questions Amazon’s impact


Rebecca Bagley, the vice chancellor of economic partnerships at Pitt, speaks about Amazon and Pittsburgh Wednesday at a panel titled “Forged For All?Amazon HQ2, Human Rights and the Future of Pittsburgh” in Parran Hall. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said Amazon coming to Pittsburgh would be “unquestionably a good thing,” in an article published by Geekwire Wednesday.

But the crowd of 50 people that filled a room in Parran Hall Wednesday afternoon heard five panelists discuss different views on the potential arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters.

“Is this an opportunity for growth, or is this just another opportunity to instantiate the disparities that already exist?” asked Jason Beery, a senior researcher at the UrbanKind Institute.

The Pitt Human Rights Project, the Urban Studies Program and the UrbanKind Institute sponsored the the panel titled “Forged for All? Amazon HQ2, Human Rights and the Future of Pittsburgh.” They gathered to discuss how Amazon’s second headquarters could affect the City — specifically questioning if the company and the estimated 50,000 jobs it would bring might increase inequality in Pittsburgh.

Five panelists discussed the potential pros and cons of Amazon coming to Pittsburgh at a panel titled “Forged For All? Amazon HQ2, Human Rights and the Future of Pittsburgh” Wednesday in Parran Hall. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

The five panelists — Beery, Rebecca Bagley, Waverly Duck, William Generett Jr. and Beth Shaaban — brought different perspectives on the issue — with some focusing on the potential positives of Amazon and others presenting concerns. But all agreed that a discussion about the pros and cons was important.

Amazon announced in September that the company was looking for a city to build its second headquarters. Hundreds of cities submitted proposals — many offering the online retail giant tax credits and other financial incentives. Amazon selected Pittsburgh as one of the 20 finalists in January.

Bagley, the vice chancellor for economic partnerships at Pitt, said most economic development policy takes place completely in private, so conversations about economic development and how it relates to equality are important, even if Amazon chooses another city.

“I think Pittsburgh is poised for growth, whether it’s through Amazon or through others,” she said.  “These conversations that we’re having … [are] a really good thing for the community [and] a really good thing for the University community.”

Duck, the head of the Urban Studies Program at Pitt, opened the forum with a statement about the need to protect the interests of the Pittsburgh community in the event Amazon decides to bring its second headquarters to the City. Duck discussed public concerns over the potential for displacement of citizens, increases in the cost of housing and access to jobs that Amazon would provide should it come to Pittsburgh.

“Amazon was very clear about what’s in it for them,” Duck said. “I think that we should start asking what’s in it for us.”

Generett, the vice president of community engagement at Duquesne, said he was concerned about how the Amazon deal would impact the impoverished community of Pittsburgh.

“Depending on the statistics, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of our population lives at or below the poverty line,” Generett said. “The question becomes, how are those 40 percent of people going to be impacted by this?”

Shaaban, a Ph.D. student and member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, talked about what Amazon might do to student life at Pitt. She referenced students at the University of Washington in Seattle, where Amazon’s main headquarters is located. Students have moved out of the city due to inflated housing prices — which Shaaban said is a warning for what could happen to students at Pitt.

“Local universities and colleges have to be part of any kind of strategic planning about having enough housing,” Shaaban said.

Beery, a former professor at Pitt, was the last to speak. He pointed out the gender inequality of a company like Amazon, which has only one woman among its 18 highest-ranking executives. He also discussed the racial inequality in the tech industry, at Amazon and at Pitt.

“Of the undergraduate enrollment, only five percent is black and African-American, in a City that is 25 percent black and African-American,” Beery said. “We need to really think about how the University works if it’s going to work to develop the pipeline of students to take these jobs.”

In an interview after the forum, Bagley said she thought the Amazon headquarters would be a naturally diverse workplace.

“It’s not necessarily just the software engineers and those types of things,” she said. “So I think a lot of those things allow for diversity to be embedded not only at Amazon but in all the companies we would look to grow or look to create.”

In the question and answer portion of the forum, Jules Lobel, a Pitt law professor, asked about the secrecy of Pittsburgh’s Amazon bid. Since the public hasn’t seen the incentives, he asked the panelists how they can have an honest discussion about the proposal. Generett said keeping the incentives private is part of the “game” in attracting new companies.

“The idea that keeping [the proposal] secret is part of the rules of the game is wrong,” Lobel said after the event, pointing to Philadelphia, which released a redacted version of its proposal.

Overall, Lobel found the panel to be a great discussion, despite his disagreement with some responses — a sentiment shared by David Ankin, a junior computer science student.

Ankin said the panelists brought up a lot of good points about the potential negative impact Amazon would have on housing and students, as well as on the role of the University as a major player in the City.

“The stats, the numbers they said, completely backed this up,” he said. “But then the responses were all — ‘but jobs.’”