The news that Amazon will build a distribution center in the southern Hillsborough County community of Ruskin should mean a paycheck to 1,000 people, but it's also important to remember who is subsidizing these jobs and what kind of jobs they are. Yet again, the county is paying millions in tax dollars to bring service-level jobs to the suburbs, creating more traffic on the roads and burnishing the area's reputation as a destination for retail, back-shop and other low-paying industries. Warehouse jobs are certainly better than no jobs, but this is not a pathway for competing in the modern economy.
County commissioners were more overheated than usual in making the announcement, with one hailing the news as a "mega-storm" whose impact was bigger than landing the Olympics. Jobs with decent benefits are welcome, especially in a slow-growing area of the county. The size of the permanent workforce for the Amazon operation should create a churn of dollars to mom-and-pops and chain stores alike across south county. Florida's strong consumer market and the availability of cheap land could also induce the Internet retailer and other businesses to expand their presence in the region.
But at its heart, the operation is a warehouse. For comparison's sake, as Tampa Bay Times staff writer Susan Thurston reported Tuesday, one of Amazon's newest distribution centers in Tennessee employes about 1,150 workers, most of whom pluck products from shelves, pack the goods and ship them. Amazon requires that its warehouse workers be able to lift 49 pounds, and be on their feet for 10 to 12 hours, squatting, bending and reaching. Starting pay at the centers averages $10 to $12 an hour. These are hardly the easiest working conditions.
And Hillsborough taxpayers paid plenty for the deal. The commission agreed to waive half the county portion of Amazon's property tax bill for seven years, or about $6.4 million total. The board also agreed to pay another $1.1 million over four years in exchange for Amazon creating 375 "well-paying jobs," defined as those paying at least $47,581, or 15 percent more than the average state wage.
At least upon Amazon's opening here, traditional Florida retailers will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to having to collect sales taxes. The Internet behemoth will no longer have any excuse to not collect and remit sales taxes from sales to Florida residents, and that will benefit the entire state.
Ultimately, Amazon decided on Hillsborough because that's what works for the company. The county did not use its economic development money to diversify the jobs base, to go after agreed-upon targeted industries in life and marine sciences, security or high-tech manufacturing or look to attract new businesses to the already established urban core. Those are the building blocks of economic growth the county is confusing with Amazon. And until commissioners realize the difference, this community will continue to rely on hourly wages that only fuel the same old cycle.