Commentary: Amazon’s record investment shows Garner

 In November 2018

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Amazon.com is plowing $200 million into a high-tech distribution center in Garner, marking the biggest corporate investment in the southeast Wake County town’s history. Officials expect the project to spur other development. Photo courtesy of Town of Garner

Commentary

By Dan Barkin

Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams walked to the front of the council chambers, grabbed the lectern and beamed at the crowd on an August day. In a fast-growing region filled with transplants with thin connections to their new communities, Williams is a Garner native who went off to Vietnam and came back to dual careers at the post office and in public service, including 20 years as a town councilor and mayor since 2005.

“If it looks like I’ve got a smile on my face, I do,” Williams began. “Today, I’m happy to announce that Amazon is coming to Garner!”

Amazon.com is investing $200 million in a 2.6-million-square-foot distribution center with 1,500 jobs, scheduled to open next year in the Wake County town abutting southeast Raleigh. It’s one of hundreds of facilities that Amazon has built or announced across the nation over the last five years, in pursuit of ever-faster delivery as it reinvents retail.

“This is a great day for Garner,” proclaimed the mayor.

And yet …

Some four weeks later, up in Washington, D.C., Sen. Bernie Sanders filed a bill aimed squarely at Amazon’s labor practices. The Stop BEZOS Act (Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies) contends that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has become fabulously rich in part by underpaying his vast army of warehouse workers, forcing many to rely on food stamps, housing subsidies and Medicaid. The Vermont senator proposes taxing companies an amount equal to the federal assistance their workers receive.

When the Garner project was announced, the rate for most employees was pegged at $12.50 an hour, about half the median wage in Wake County. In early October, Amazon boosted its national minimum wage to $15 an hour, in the $31,200 range annually, still well below Wake’s average. (A similar-sized Amazon facility is under construction near Charlotte’s airport.) But the senator would benefit from understanding why Garner is so happy to have Amazon.

First, consider the site where the center will be built and its tragic story. Jones Sausage Road winds two lanes through a rural-ish stretch of Garner, population 31,000, between Interstate 40 and Highway 70. The road’s namesake company eventually ended up in the hands of food giant ConAgra Brands Inc., which employed 440 to make Slim Jim meat snacks.

In 2009, an explosion tore through the plant, leaving four dead and dozens injured. Two years later, ConAgra left Garner, handing over its land to the town. Garner lost a major employer, while gaining a plot of contaminated land.

For seven years, the town’s principal focus has been to clean up the property, market it to site-selection consultants and get it wedged into the state’s narrow road-funding pipeline. Landing Amazon helps the town get past the trauma of those lost lives and jobs that employed generations of Garner residents.

The other key issue is that Wake County’s prosperity has not been evenly distributed. County Commissioner John Burns puts it this way: “There are 120,000 people who live below the poverty line in Wake County. That would be the 25th-largest county in the state.”

To remedy this inequality, the county’s recent focus has been on “inclusive” growth, says Michael Haley, Wake’s economic-development director. “How can we make sure we’re creating as much opportunity across all of Wake County as we possibly can?”

Many companies recruited to the area are high-skill employers setting up shop in gleaming office parks around Research Triangle Park. Many settle in pricey western Wake towns such as Cary, Apex and Morrisville, where nearly two-thirds of adults have bachelor’s degrees or beyond.

In Garner, it’s one-third. The median household income of about $60,000 is 60% of Cary’s. When Amazon offers a slew of entry-level jobs that provide benefits and training, the Seattle-based company will find enough workers, says Joe Stallings, Garner’s economic-development director.

Stallings has obsessed about the ConAgra property since he came to Garner nearly four years ago, and he has this message for those who tut-tut about Amazon pay: “The town of Garner is dedicated to the idea of raising everyone up.

“When ConAgra left, they took with them $55 million worth of tax base and 440 jobs,” Stallings says. “And what we’ve put back in its place is $200 million worth of tax base and 1,500 jobs. I think what we’ve been able to do here is show that Garner is resilient and Garner has a bright future. We took a tragic event, and we really turned it into a triumph.”

That’s the view of Amazon from Jones Sausage Road, if not Washington, D.C.

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