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Williams: Amazon deal - sugar, spice the not-so nice

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In this economy, 1,350 jobs is nothing to "bah, humbug" about. For too many people, employment is the greatest Christmas gift they could receive.

In that context, central Virginians might feel inclined to greet online retailer Amazon with milk, cookies or whatever you give a job-creating Santa Claus. The Seattle-based firm announced Thursday that it will open two distribution centers — an $85 million warehouse in Chesterfield County and a $50 million center in Dinwiddie County.

Officials say Amazon's presence here will not only reduce the region's unemployment but also lure other economic prospects. The construction of two warehouses — each slightly smaller than Short Pump Town Center — is bound to be a boon to the local construction business. Once the distribution centers are up and rolling, the benefits will be felt from the trucking industry to Richmond's port.

But this stocking, however bountiful with gifts for our region, also contains a few lumps of coal.

It's puzzling that no one involved seems willing to answer the simple and obvious question of what the Amazon employees will be paid. Why the secrecy?

If you're Chesterfield, which provided Amazon with about $5 million in incentives, or Gov. Bob McDonnell, who approved $3.5 million in state grants to aid the two counties, wouldn't that be essential information? The employee market wants to know what's available. Taxpayers wonder what caliber of jobs has been subsidized with government largesse.

Let's be real: No one expects these distribution centers to be chock-full of engineers, attorneys, information technicians and other well-paid personnel. In all likelihood, these jobs will provide modest or low hourly wages to a minimally skilled labor force that can dearly use the work. As a region, we're grateful.

But there's a looming and long-standing problem. How will prospective employees without cars get to these jobs, given the deficiencies in our regional mass transit system, whose lack of reach perpetuates poverty by denying the poor access to suburban employment?

There's also the nature of Amazon, which seems to be at cross purposes with local mom and pops.

"They have somewhat predatory business practices," said Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books in Carytown.

One example has brick-and-mortar retailers steamed: Amazon encouraged people to walk into stores on Dec. 10 and use its Price Check smartphone app on that retailer's items. For spying on its competitors, Amazon offered customers a 5 percent discount, up to $15 total, on select Amazon items.

Finally, there's the issue of the publicly subsidized gift wrap that helped land the Amazon facilities under our Yule tree. At least some local merchants resent that state and local government showered millions in incentives on an online enterprise that — unlike them — doesn't collect and remit sales taxes.

A loophole in federal law exempts some online-only retailers from collecting sales taxes unless they have a physical presence — such as a warehouse — in the purchaser's state. The Marketplace Equity Act of 2011 would close this loophole and require online sellers to collect and remit taxes "without regard to the location of the seller."

However, McDonnell essentially wrapped a bow on Amazon's sweetheart arrangement Thursday. "Amazon will not be required to collect and remit sales taxes in Virginia," said the governor's spokesman, Tucker Martin.

Amazon, which reported more than $34 billion in revenue last year, wouldn't exactly be pressed to do what's required of small businesses like Chop Suey. Clearly, where this deal is concerned, charity ends at home.

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