Business

LeDuff: Santa, Bring Us a Train Because Amazon Ain't Coming to Town


December 12, 2018, 10:31 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

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Dear Santa:

Remember last Christmas? When Amazon was talking like they believed in us and maybe they wanted to move here to Detroit? And almost everyone around here believed.

But then we were told never mind. We had no train.

It's nice to be believed in. If anybody knows that, Papa, it's you.

So please send us a train, Santa. Nothing too expensive. A nice silver train with peppermint-striped wheels, maybe.

Here's what happened: Amazon said it was looking for a big-time city to locate a second world headquarters and the 50,000 jobs that would come with it. Never mind 250 other cities also offered their left foot and firstborn child.

Amazon said they really liked our pluck and turnaround spirit. That's what Detroit city leaders told us anyway.

But it wasn't Detroit's elected leaders who told us the shipping giant might want to move in. It was the billionaire developers and their hangers-on who really make decisions around here. In order to make that deal come true, they told us, we had to hand Amazon billions of dollars... and beef up mass transit.  

Who could argue? They're billionaires after all. So we let them secretly negotiate with Amazon, although nobody told the public they were dangling $4 billion in public money like an apple before the horse.

Business writers and TV suits thought it was a fine idea to negotiate in secret. After all, billionaires know what they're doing; they're billionaires after all.

But we won't get a rich new neighbor. Detroit didn't even make Amazon's final list of 20. And that hurt real bad. :(

The billionaires told us part of the reason Amazon didn't want to move below 8 Mile was because we don't have a train around here. Apparently, trendy techy types really like trains, Santa.  

And we believed the billionaires when they told us Amazon and other new-economy employers required a train. 

So the billionaires and their hangers-on teamed up to sell the people of metro Detroit on the idea of taxing their homes to build that train -- even though that train would not service Oakland or Macomb counties where most of the homeowners live. It would run downtown, where the billionaires have their casinos and ball parks.

The billionaires and their hangers-on tried to sell metro Detroit on the train -- and a lot of other mass transit -- in 2016, the year before Amazon started fishing for cash. They tried a smaller version of the plan after Amazon told us we weren't in the running, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, wrapped in the tissue paper of the Amazon dis.

The downtown billionaires wouldn't even have to pay their fare share for the train. The only people who seemed to understand this were the county executives of Oakland and Macomb counties who tried to block the vote in 2016, and succeeded this year. They were shouted down as racists and obstructionists. But they were right, and now, nobody wants to give them credit.

Now, we find out that it wasn't about trains and transit at all, Santa. Amazon "unofficially" sort-of announced last month that it will split its second world headquarters between New York and Washington D.C., even though other finalist cities like Chicago have better trains. Massive tax subsidies offered by those winning cities certainly didn't hurt.

Detroit's billionaires and business elites and newspaper poodles are barking mad. Amazon pulled the bone away, while our business leaders handed over our balance sheets, our development plans and our proprietary data.

Once again, the big city wolves made us look like hicks.

We've don't have a train in Detroit, Santa, but we do have a train station. And the city is going to fork over $100 million to help a multi-billion dollar multinational corporation refurbish it. It is unlikely that the city will ever break even on that deal. We have insufficient police coverage. We don't have an education system that educates. But we do have tainted water coming from the elementary school drinking fountains.

We also have billions of dollars in projects financed with hundreds of millions of public dollars downtown, which unknown to most regular folks is an "Opportunity Zone" created under the Trump tax cuts. "Opportunity Zones" allow the rich to funnel in outside profits and shelter those profits from capital gains taxes. 

We don't have much, and with the economy teetering and the stock market ping-ponging and General Motors consolidating plants right out of the city of Detroit, we're going to have to make some real decisions that maximizes benefit for the most. That's basic economics. 

So, I'm begging you Santa, please send us a train.

Charlie LeDuff's latest book is "Sh*tshow!: The Country's Collapsing . . . and the Ratings Are Great." He is also the host of a weekly podcast, "No BS News Hour with Charlie LeDuff."



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