Protesters decry ‘Hunger Games’ competition for Amazon’s HQ2

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Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, speaks at a City Hall press conference. She conducted a mock interview with someone dressed up as Alexa, the digital assistant sold by Amazon to highlight their demand that the city be more transparent about the incentives being offered to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to Chicago. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The $2.25 billion incentive package aimed at luring Amazon’s second North American headquarters to Chicago amounts to $450,000-per-job that must be matched by investments in city neighborhoods, community activists demanded Tuesday.

The “Babies Before Bezos” crowd returned to City Hall, this time with a protester dressed as Alexa, the talking, interactive “virtual assistant” developed by Amazon.

That allowed Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, to conduct a mock interview to underscore her demands that Amazon pay sales and property taxes, provide affordable housing, accessible transportation and “living wage” jobs to employees free to unionize and that community residents have a seat at the negotiating table.

Under questioning by Patel, pretend Alexa said Amazon’s profits last year were “$3 billion U.S. dollars” — $750 million more than Chicago’s bid — and that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a net worth of $116.8 billion.

When Patel asked how many people Amazon’s HQ2 would “push out of the city” or why the company demands “non-disclosure agreements,” Alexa replied: “I am not at liberty to say.”

Video: Fran Spielman

But pretend Alexa did claim that Chicago’s incentive package amounts to $5,500-per-student at Chicago Public Schools and that $2.25 billion could provide home care services for 701,380 senior citizens, MAP grants for 754,842 low-income colleges students or homeless services for 2.8 million people.

“We are not OK with Amazon playing Hunger Games with cities like Chicago. Amazon is creating a race to the bottom with cities competing against each other to see who can give away the most tax dollars to one of the richest companies in the world,” Patel told a City Hall news conference.

Patel questioned how Chicago can afford to offer a $2.25 billion incentive package when Gov. Bruce Rauner “can’t find 48 cents to pay workers their promised wages” and Mayor Rahm Emanuel “keeps closing schools in black neighborhoods” while “vital services are being cut and longtime residents are getting pushed out of the city.”

“This set-up is a losing deal for everyone but Amazon. Instead of trying to win this race to the bottom, we are joining with residents of other short-listed cities to put out a list of shared demands. Wherever Amazon HQ2 ends up, it must directly benefit the people who live and work in that city,” Patel said.


Watch Chicago’s pitch to Amazon — narrated by William Shatner Secrecy clouds Amazon team’s visit to tour Chicago sites for HQ2 Chicago makes first cut; 20 finalists named for second Amazon HQ

Elisabeth Greer chairs the local school council at National Teachers Academy, the top-rated African-American elementary school in the South Loop that Emanuel’s hand-picked school team is closing to make way for a new high school.

“While Rahm is kicking out children from National Teachers Academy and from Englewood High school, he’s welcoming in Amazon with open arms. While Rahm closes schools in black and brown neighborhoods, claiming that the city is broke, he offers Amazon billions of dollars in incentives,” Greer said.

“While our children go to school in filthy buildings, Rahm frees up potential HQ2 sites around town for Amazon executives. While Rahm destroys the educational futures of black and brown children by displacing them from their schools, he brags to Amazon that Chicago has an educated workforce.”

Gus Katsafaros owns Marmalade Restaurant in Ravenswood. He’s also a candidate for 47th Ward aldermanic seat being vacated by retiring Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th).

Katsafaros argued that Amazon would have a “negative effect on the surrounding community” — even if 50,000 jobs are created here.

“They build a city-within-a-city. … They will create a casino effect. … Everything they need is self-contained. If they need a restaurant, they have it inside. If they need a barber shop, they’ll have it inside. They keep their employees confined within the facility in order to maximize production,” Katsafaros said.

Video: Fran Spielman

Katsafaros accused Emanuel and Rauner of “throwing everything at” Amazon, a company that doesn’t need any help.

“In the meantime, small business owners like myself are nickel-and-dimed on everything,” he said.

Grant Klinzman, Emanuel’s spokesperson on the Amazon bid, sent an email saying he “politely declined” to comment on the group’s demands.

Last month, the Amazon team charged with evaluating 20 finalists for the 50,000-job prize known as “HQ2” came to Chicago to tour five sites.

They are: Lincoln Yards that includes the old Finkl Steel plant among 100 acres along the Chicago River; a River district where Tribune Media wants to build 15 office and residential towers; Fulton Market; the 78, a 62-acre site at Roosevelt and Clark once owned by convicted felon Tony Rezko where Rauner dreams of building an innovation center led by the University of Illinois and the Burnham Lakefront that includes the old Michael Reese Hospital site.

The site visit was shrouded in secrecy because city and state officials are bound by non-disclosure agreements.

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