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Analysis: Are Amazon's Bellevue plans really all about Seattle?

Amazon spheres
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press

Amazon's plans to relocate one of its critical teams to Bellevue have prompted questions about the company's relationship with Seattle.

GeekWire first reported Wednesday that Amazon is planning to move its worldwide operations team to Bellevue from Seattle by 2023. The move is expected to add thousands of employees to the company's campus across Lake Washington. 

"As a community we've worked hard to anticipate this type of positive growth downtown," Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak said in a statement, adding, "Amazon is a natural fit."

Several events in the past couple years suggest this move may have something to do with ongoing tensions between Amazon and its hometown. 

In late 2017, the company announced its search for a "co-equal second headquarters," prompting questions at the time about whether Amazon was "over" Seattle.

The announcement came around the same time a debate began over a head tax on large businesses to fund homeless services.

That debate raged on during the first half of 2018. Seattle City Council members initially approved the tax, but repealed it after pressure from a mounting referendum campaign, funded in part by companies including Amazon. Amazon also paused construction in Seattle for a brief period during this time.

By the end of 2018, Amazon concluded its HQ2 search, choosing to expand in New York and outside of Washington, D.C. But the company changed course in February. It dumped expansion plans in New York after backlash from activists and politicians there.

The responses to these events have varied. Some Seattle residents and officials see a company using its size and power to get what it wants and shirk civic duties. Others see a city at risk of losing its largest private employer and a major economic engine.

The company's latest plans to move employees to Bellevue fits into this context, but it's not necessarily clear how.

"People might be in a rush to say 'This is all about showing Seattle,'" said Jeff Shulman, who hosts the Seattle Growth Podcast.

Shulman, who also is a professor of marketing at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, said there are practical reasons for wanting to expand within the same region but outside of the Seattle.

Access to talent may be one reason. As Seattle has grown, many have moved away from the city center. By growing in Bellevue, companies may have a better chance of recruiting workers who have ended up in the east King County suburbs.

"Facebook has thousands of employees here in Seattle and they have huge designs on Bellevue," Shulman said. "Google has big offices here in Seattle and they have expanding plans in Bellevue."

Shulman said these moves may cause uncertainty in the housing market and become issues during this year's City Council elections. But he says Amazon is unlikely to completely extricate itself from Seattle. And even if it did, the city could survive.

"While it seems like we're a single-company town just because of the sheer proportion of jobs and real estate that Amazon is taking, the reality is we have more companies thriving here in Seattle than, I believe, ever before," Shulman said. 

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.