SLO’s Heidi Harmon calls on mayors across U.S. — and the public — to boycott Amazon

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon is encouraging the public and “mayors across the U.S.” to boycott e-commerce giant Amazon, saying the company is destroying communities.

Harmon’s issued statement comes days after Amazon pulled out of a potential new secondary headquarters location in New York City. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, is “destroying our downtowns and having a negative impact on our communities,” Harmon said.

“Amazon’s Valentine’s Day break-up with New York City is the perfect time for us all to consider breaking up with Amazon and rekindling our relationship with local small businesses,” Harmon said in her statement. “While there may be some benefits to Amazon, it’s time to put the long-term economic viability of our local community over the short-term economic gains of a few.”

New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also notably spoke out against the idea of $3 billion in tax breaks as an incentive for Amazon to open its secondary headquarters there.

An Amazon spokesperson told The Tribune by email that, while they won’t respond directly to the mayor’s comments, figures they cite show the company helps the city and county economy, contending it has “created over 130 direct, high-paying jobs in SLO County” while operating an branch office in SLO.

“Last year alone, we invested more than $33 million in the city and paid over $25 million in compensation (figures include stock) to our employees,” Amazon said in a statement.

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San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The local Amazon office provides jobs that include software developer engineers, systems engineers, and technical program managers, some of which pay more than $100,000, according to glassdoor.com. The spokesperson also noted that the company is currently hiring for 20 positions.

Many of the employees who work in Amazon’s San Luis Obispo office are Cal Poly graduates in computer science who develop software for a variety of platforms such as Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace and Prime, according to previous Tribune reports.

The $33 million investment in the city includes spending on infrastructure, employee compensation and money spent by Amazon in local suppliers to keep the corporation office running, the company explained.

Amazon’s spokesperson also wrote that the number of retail establishments in SLO County increased last year and the industry created 100 new additional jobs in the first quarter of 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, meaning “the number of jobs created by local retailers is growing, not decreasing.”

Amazon also said its investments have contributed to the creation of an additional 240 jobs in SLO on top of Amazon’s direct hires, “as our employees spend money in the community and Amazon contracts with many local businesses, that are now our suppliers.”

Those numbers are based on the methodology developed by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the company noted.

On Thursday, Harmon told The Tribune that, despite Amazon’s data, plenty of other documentation nationally has shown detrimental effects on local businesses, on the supply chain and treatment of employees, as well.

“I have empathy for all working people, including Amazon employees,” Harmon told The Tribune. “... But overall, there has been shift from brick-and-mortar shopping to online shopping. And that not only has had economic impact on communities, but also on the relationships that business owners build in the community and with each other.”

A protest against Amazon’s second headquarters at an Amazon store in New York, Nov. 26, 2018. The political opposition that prompted Amazon to walk away from building a corporate headquarters in New York City featured a touchstone of the progressives economic agenda: ending tax policies that unfairly reward and pamper the wealthy. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times) JEENAH MOON NYT

Harmon acknowledged the issue isn’t black and white, but based on her research and assessment of her personal values, she feels invested in creating change.

“Mayors, in particular, have a bigger responsibility than most to ensure the economic viability of their community, and Amazon is implicitly detrimental to that mission,” Harmon said. “I am personally leaving Amazon and will instead do my best to shop as locally as possible. I empathize with why so many of us are shopping on Amazon. It’s really convenient I’m having a hard time quitting.”

Harmon added that local business makes communities strong and resilient, and those businesses connect residents to become the “social glue that holds us together,” building community networks and ties.

Some of the relatively recent closures of retail stores in San Luis Obispo have included: Ann’s Contemporary Clothing, Crossroads Video, Borah’s Awards trophy store, Aaron Brothers, Betty’s Fabrics, and Marshalls Jewelers. Closures of larger chain stores in SLO have included Gap, Payless Shoesource and Sears.

But Harmon acknowledged it’s hard to know what stores have faced specific impact from Amazon.

Harmon added: “I want a world in which I can walk into a vibrant and thriving downtown and visit the local shopkeepers that I have grown to know and buy items that I need that are made with care.”

But Amazon said its mark is felt through “$44 million in investments that have contributed to the gross domestic product of the county, including the additional economic activity generated by our presence.”

“For example, our employees and their families spending money on local businesses, or buying real estate, or using local healthcare providers,” the company said.

“Overall in the U.S., we have invested more than $160 billion over the last seven years, related more than 250,000 direct jobs and contributed to an additional 366,000 indirect jobs in industries like healthcare, constructions, retail and professional services, among others,” Amazon said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.