District 1 County Council Candidates Differ on Support for Amazon

District 1 County Council Candidates Differ on Support for Amazon

'The fact they're going to plop the equivalent of two Pentagons in this area doesn't sit well with me,' one candidate said about Amazon's H2Q potentially coming to the county

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The seven candidates that attended the District 1 County Council candidate Thursday evening were from left to right, Pete Fosselman, Ana Sol Gutierrez, Bill Cook, Reggie Oldak, Jim McGee, Meredith Wellington and Andrew Friedson. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

One thing that the Democratic candidates running for the open Bethesda-based District 1 County Council seat didn’t agree on at a forum Thursday night was how to pitch the county to Amazon to attract the company’s second headquarters location.

Seven of the eight Democratic candidates running for the seat appeared at the forum in North Bethesda and two said they wouldn’t roll out the red carpet to welcome the tech giant or its billionaire owner Jeff Bezos.

Candidates Bill Cook, Jim McGee, Reggie Oldak, state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, Andrew Friedson, Meredith Wellington and Pete Fosselman participated in the forum, while Dalbin Osario, a social worker, didn’t attend because he was sick, according to moderator Amy Ginsburg.

“I’d say to Jeff Bezos we want those jobs, but we’re not prepared to prostrate ourselves or the taxpayer for those jobs,” Cook, a videographer who owns a small business, said. “I’d begin negotiating, actually negotiating, not just giving them everything they want. I’d say, ‘Jeff Bezos, I know you’re richest the man in the world and you don’t actually need this money.’ ”

He added that he “knows” Amazon is coming to the Washington, D.C., area and he described D.C. as a “mess” and Northern Virginia’s schools as “terrible.” Both places are among the 19 locations competing with Montgomery County for Amazon’s new headquarters. Cook posited that the downsides of other two locations give the county an edge and as a result he would tell Bezos he’d instead invest the $2 billion the state has offered for transportation improvements and highlight the county’s educated workforce to try to attract the company, instead of offering other potential incentives.

Amazon has said it plans to invest about $5 billion to build its new headquarters and to employ about 50,000 workers at the location. The company plans to announce its selection sometime later this year.

The candidate forum was hosted by the Friends of White Flint at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center and focused on issues surrounding the development of the White Flint area. The candidates are seeking to win the council seat being vacated by council member Roger Berliner, who is running for county executive, but must step down from the council due to term limits.

County officials have said the county pitched the White Flint area to Amazon for its new headquarters.

McGee, who manages a health fund for a transit union, said he “wouldn’t be the best person to make the pitch to Amazon.”

“The fact that they’re going to plop the equivalent of two Pentagons in this area doesn’t sit well with me,” McGee said.

McGee and Cook were the only candidates who opposed the estimated $5 billion-plus tax incentive package recently approved by the General Assembly and designed to help lure Amazon to choose the county.

Tax attorney Reggie Oldak pointed out the only way Amazon would get the tax incentives included in the package is if it chooses to locate in the county and created the jobs as promised.

“As a tax lawyer, let me tell you, we’re not giving them money,” Oldak said. “Instead of collecting 100 percent of nothing, we would be collecting 90 percent of something if they come.”

Gutierrez (D-Chevy Chase), who voted for the state tax incentive package, said she wanted to know what the county would gain if Amazon relocated here.

“It’s not just the jobs and it’s not just the tax,” Gutierrez said. “We want them to be part of the community and to give us so much by recognizing our richness, our diversity and [to] make our workforce’s lives even better than what we currently do in Montgomery County.”

Fosselman, a former Kensington mayor who is overseeing the implementation of the White Oak master plan for the county, agreed with Oldak and noted “we aren’t losing revenue.” He said the “short-term tax breaks” being offered to Amazon don’t outweigh the long-term benefits the company could provide to the county.

“Yes, there will be some issues we’re going to have to work out with schools and traffic,” Fosselman said.

Wellington, a former county Planning Board member, said she would tell Amazon that if chosen, the county stands ready to help with the headquarters project.

“[We’ll] work with you to understand the needs of the community and the area where you will be and how to maximize your efficiency and the beauty of your campus through good design and good policies,” Wellington said.

Friedson, a former adviser to state Comptroller Peter Franchot, said he’d pitch the community’s belief in the future.

“A company like Amazon that cares about livable, walkable, accessible communities [would have] here in the Pike District everything they would want and everything they would need,” Friedson said, referring to the mixed-use neighborhood of the recently rebranded White Flint area.

The candidates also addressed issues including the county’s debt burden, whether they supported privatizing the Department of Liquor Control and which transportation projects they’d back in the White Flint area. A video of the approximately 60-minute forum was posted to the Friends of White Flint Facebook page.

The Democratic candidates are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Thursday for a debate hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Beat at Hope Connections for Cancer Support, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda.

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