By Lorraine Connelly
A recent editorial in this paper lauded the continued proliferation of Amazon facilities in Wallingford and North Haven as good news for the tax base and the employment picture of both towns.
Earlier this month Wallingford’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission voted unanimously to approve an application to build a 219,000-square-foot delivery station and a 715-space parking lot on the site of the demolished Bristol-Myers Squibb complex on Research Parkway in anticipation of a third Amazon facility.
This project seems like an attractive business prospect, but unlike the state-of-the-art Bristol Myers complex that brought over 800 scientists and staff to Wallingford in 1986 — and whose employees bought homes in town and paid taxes for their children to attend local schools — the Amazon project has none of those elements. It is transactional business at best and is unlikely to give Wallingford the business edge that some — including this paper’s editorial board — anticipate.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-Amazon. I’m a loyal Amazon Prime customer. I was elated at the prospect of Amazon locating its second world headquarters in my hometown, Long Island City, Queens, in 2017.
I recall reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the creek and “the Valley of Ashes” in The Great Gatsby while growing up and feeling ashamed. Unlike the affluent “East Egg” of the novel, the desolate area he referred to as the “Valley of Ashes”– where Manhattan joins Long Island — was my home. In time, Flushing Meadows Park was developed on the large square of land encompassing both the creek and its valley, and eventually became the site of both 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.
If the Amazon deal had gone through, that patch of land Fitzgerald referenced in 1925 was poised to rise from the ashes to become the next big tech hub, the Silicon Valley of the East. After backlash from local politicians and members of the community over tax incentives, gentrification, affordable housing, and more, Amazon pulled out.
New York’s Gov. Cuomo called the decision “a great tragedy.” I agreed. In the blink of an eye, the promise of 25,000 well-paying Amazon jobs — and the economic boost they would provide — disappeared. Beyond jobs, Amazon promised to create career training programs for local residents and to bring over $27 billion in new tax revenues over the next couple decades, which would have been used to improve subways and buses and build affordable housing in the neighborhood. Jilted by its wealthy suitor, Long Island City is recovering from the void left by this broken deal.
Amazon has a record of being a quixotic employer.
The recent quashing of a drive to unionize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., evinces this company’s views on labor rights. During the pandemic, Amazon made profits of $21.3 billion on the backs of employees working under Dickensian restrictions on break time and bathroom use in their tightly controlled warehouses. Amazon touts its $15-per-hour wages, which exceeds the federal minimum of $7.25, but are those wages enough to become a homeowner in Wallingford? A $15-per-hour wage computes to an annual salary of $31,200. The salary needed to afford an average home in Connecticut is $55,360 according to Gobankingrates.com.
In a recent editorial, New York Times writer Greg Bensinger cautions against Amazon’s strong-armed tactics and its obliteration of “the little guy,” noting, “Warehouse employees are encouraged not to think creatively but simply to make rate, which has increased markedly with the addition of automation and robotics.”
I am reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1936 silent film “Modern Times” where Charlie, a factory worker mindlessly tightening bolts on a moving belt, gets swallowed up literally and metaphorically by the machine. More recently, the Academy Award-nominated film Nomadland, follows the trajectory of Fern, a temp worker at an Amazon fulfillment center, who lives in her van while making a subsistence living during Amazon’s holiday rush. Workers like Fern are not about to contribute imminently to a town’s tax rolls.
As this proposed delivery station comes before the Planning and Zoning Commission, I hope some incisive questions are asked by those serving on the Commission, and that the residents who have voiced concerns about the noise and air pollution from heavy trucks serving Amazon facilities are also heard and respected.
The Record-Journal’s editorial conclusion is unfortunately too broad a stroke: “Whatever the long-term effect, the combination of more tax revenue and more jobs makes Amazon just about irresistible to a great many towns here and across the country.”
More tax revenue is essential, however, if Amazon were willing to partner with the Town on more affordable housing, this project might be almost irresistible.
Lorraine Connelly is a Wallingford writer and resident.