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Mayor Adler Says Austin Has 'Opened Door' For Serious Conversation With Amazon

Austin Mayor Steve Adler sits in a KUT studio before an interview with KUT's Jennifer Stayton last year.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Austin Mayor Steve Adler poses before an interview with KUT's Jennifer Stayton on Monday.

Austin is on the short list of cities Amazon might choose to host its second headquarters. But just what would bringing the huge ecommerce company do for Austin?

In a letter to Amazon last year, Mayor Steve Adler called it an “opportunity for a precedent-setting partnership.”

KUT's Jennifer Stayton sat down with Adler to talk about the potential he sees if Amazon were to pick Austin.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Jennifer Stayton: Austin, as you well know, made the list of 20 cities – I think there are 238 applicants. Twenty cities made that cut. And earlier there was a lot of talk about incentives, and Austin did not offer any in the first round, but you did say that Austin is offering Amazon a chance to be – you called it the social fabric and future of Austin – and I want to hear a little bit more about what you mean by that.

Mayor Steve Adler: Well, this City Council, this 10-1 council, has taken another look at how we do economic development conversations, generally, including incentives. And this is a council that has asked staff to focus on what are our city's biggest challenges and needs, and they're affordability and mobility here in Austin.

So what we had talked about in the context of Amazon or any big company coming to our city is how can that economic development help us answer the challenges of affordability and mobility.

How can we use or envision using companies like that, their scale or their power, in a way that might enable us to achieve solutions or answers that might otherwise escape us or escape us in any reasonable timing. And that would be the the evaluation of the lens that we would use. So if Amazon wants to come here our hope is that they would engage in a conversation about how they could be part of our community in a way that helped us solve, not exacerbate, our challenges.

Stayton: Well, it's interesting you say solve not exacerbate, because it seems like, so Amazon says that they're promising about 50,000 jobs. We've got jobs already; we've got low unemployment, 2.7 percent just for December. But we do have, obviously, housing and affordability are issues, mobility, are big issues. Why would an average Austinite want Amazon to come here when it seems like they would create more problems than they might solve?

Adler: If Amazon would create more problems than they would solve, then we wouldn't want them here.

But that's the conversation and the investigation, I think, that if we got to that place would have to come about.

We have 40,000 people in our city that are looking for middle-skilled jobs in our city and don't pair up to the jobs that do exist in our city. You know, we have a lot of jobs at the really high end, we have a lot of jobs down at the low-service end, but we don't have a lot of jobs in the middle. And that's leading to us, you know, we're gutting out our working class there, and we have to do everything we can to preserve that, because that's where you have the diversity and the creativity and the artist community.

So you identified the issue, I'm just not ready to prejudge the issue before that conversation would take place. I can't have that conversation with myself. I can only, as this council has done, set up the parameters for that conversation.

Stayton: This sounds like such a different dynamic, because I know there's other cities that are going: "Come here! Come here! Come here." And it sounds like Austin is saying, "We'll talk to you about coming here if it works for us."

Adler: I mean, nothing's going to happen unless it works for everybody. My sense would be that that Amazon knows its challenges; they know the challenges it's had in Seattle. My hope would be that Amazon ultimately, if it was going to move into a community, would invite and want to be part of really deliberate and serious and real conversations, and that's what we've opened the door for. This is a this is a magical place, Austin. This is a wonderful city. I could certainly understand companies and people wanting to live here.

I've chosen to live here, so I understand that. But I think that, obviously, Amazon moving into any city is going to be significant, and that calls for, in any city, a serious deliberative conversation. But you're right, we have not jumped out as many cities have and, in essence, just said, "Regardless, come here."

Stayton: So you said opening the door for conversations. Are there things that you want or would need to hear from Amazon that you have, in the mind of the city, that would be definite yes's, definite no's? Are there any specifics that you're coming to the table with a list saying, "We know, we really need this, we really need that for this to work for everybody."

Adler: You know, I don't think that I have in my mind and I don't know – I haven't talked to other City Council members just because the conversations haven't gotten to that place.

But I haven't thought in terms of individual, specific things as much as the kind of, again, the general parameters.

We have challenges in this city. We need to make sure that we're working to address those challenges. We shouldn't be doing things that exacerbate our problems, but we should be open to ways to solve our most significant challenges maybe in ways we haven't thought of before. And that's where we need to focus. A company that has the size and scale of Amazon might very well be able to open doors to different kinds of solutions, new solutions, scaled solutions in ways that might not otherwise be achieved.

Or it might not.

And I think that Austin – which is a really creative and innovative and forward-looking city, a city of early adopters, a city of really sharp, smart people that love this place – I think that we could engage in that conversation.

Stayton: Austin Mayor Steve Adler, thank you so much for your time, and we're really looking forward to future conversations.

Adler: I look forward to being invited back.

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