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Amazon and Innovation: What Will They Mean for Equity and Jobs?

Patti Singer

Acquest Development of Erie County is developing this parcel off Manitou Road in Gates and announced Nov. 12 that Amazon would come to a site in Greece. File photo

Two announcements about jobs for the Rochester region lead to one question: How will efforts to achieve for racial and social equity benefit from the potential economic development?

That may depend on whether accountability is built in.

Rep. Joe Morelle announced on Nov. 12 that when the next Congress convenes, he will re-introduce federal legislation to promote innovation. The bill also would foster equality.

The Innovation Centers Acceleration Act would launch a national competition for high-tech hubs in metropolitan areas, with nine winners sharing $80 billion over nine years. Contestants would be judged in part on their commitment to equal opportunity. Rochester is expected to contend for one of the awards.

“We envision the competition to not only talk about extraordinary innovations in a range of disciplines, but the competition also would be judged on how each region deals with racial equity issues,” Morelle said. “How we make sure we’re expanding educational and workforce opportunities, how we talk about and how we consider affordable housing for the region. … Those were intentionally put in as part of the criteria.”

About 30 minutes earlier at a separate online news conference, County Executive Adam Bello and Greece Supervisor Bill Reilich had announced that Amazon would be coming to a site at 1200 Lexington Avenue in Greece.

The Greece project is being developed by the same company, Acquest Development, which is working on a 278,000-suqare foot distribution center in Gates. That project was first reported last month by Minority Reporter.

At the time, the developer declined to confirm whether Amazon would be coming to the site off Manitou Road in Gates. Michael Huntress of Acquest Development again declined to name the occupant for the Gates location, saying there were multiple national companies in play. But the warehouse is consistent with those used by the online retailer. The site is projected to have about 1,200 jobs.

The Greece location is projected to have 50 full-time and 50 part-time jobs. It is a “last mile” facility, meaning packages are delivered directly to the final location from that site.

Reilich focused on the benefit for his town. He called the Amazon project a “great day for Greece” and said for the residents it meant “jobs, jobs and more jobs. Good jobs, with benefits and solid wages.”
When asked if residents elsewhere might benefit, Bello said the project “obviously attract jobs that are available to people across this community.”

He said the Lexington Avenue location is accessible and “will create a great opportunity for people throughout the region to apply for these positions.”

The project is expected to create 400 construction jobs. The site is expected to be completed by August.

The Gates site has the potential for 10 times the number of jobs as Greece – and poses the same question about who will be in line for them.

The location adjacent to Rochester Tech Park is on a bus line, but public transportation still can be a barrier to employment.

South Park Development, which is owned by Acquest, has applied for a payment-in- lieu-of-taxes plan for the Greece location. It wouldn’t be a surprise if an application also is made for the Gates location.

That would seem to give the county some leverage. But that’s not always used.

When asked about the effect of potential of jobs at the Gates site on anti-poverty and equity work, former Mayor Bill Johnson, a co-chair of the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity, said often municipalities hesitate to place demands on potential employers for fear of losing jobs.

He said there are ways to make demands without chasing away potential jobs. He cited the example of his administration working with Tops Friendly Markets to bring grocery stores to the city. Tops had to set aside a certain number of jobs for neighborhood residents.

“There are all kinds of ways you can be creative and innovative,” he said. “To say, we’re getting 1,200 jobs but we can’t put any control on it, … I don’t accept that.”

In talking about the proposed federal legislation for the innovation centers, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Office Bob Duffy said underserved people stood to benefit. “This will open up many, many doors.”

Morelle said the exact criteria for measuring a region’s commitment to equity and inclusion haven’t been worked out, but there will be measuring tools.

“Generally, speaking, we would look at workforce development programs, making sure they are attracting people from all sectors and all socioeconomic classes, including the disenfranchised,” he said.

He said the requirements will make communities take stock of their readiness and their need for more investment in education and workforce preparedness.

“One of the fears people have about innovation technology is if you’re someone who doesn’t have the skill set to be in that marketplace, how does this help you,” he said. “We want to make sure all boats are lifted by the rising tide.”