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Jules Lobel, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, addresses the forum on the potential impact of Amazon HQ2. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

PITTSBURGH — Seattleites like to point to the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study in problems to avoid: skyrocketing housing prices, traffic congestion, and economic inequality. Well, look who’s the cautionary tale now.

Challenges in Amazon’s hometown were mentioned repeatedly during a forum at the University of Pittsburgh campus Wednesday afternoon about the potential impact of this city landing the tech giant’s second headquarters. The rising cost of housing around Seattle’s University of Washington, for example, was cited as a repercussion of the growth of Amazon and other tech companies in Seattle.

In its HQ2 request for proposals, “Amazon was very clear what’s in it for them. I think we should start asking the question, ‘What’s in it for us?'” author and professor Waverly Duck, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, said to the crowd.

Waverly Duck, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh

The forum, one of two on the topic in Pittsburgh this week, was a microcosm of a larger discussion taking place around the country. Pittsburgh is one of 20 finalists for Amazon’s new headquarters. Several speakers acknowledged that its chances are slim against larger cities. But even if Amazon doesn’t choose Pittsburgh, several people at the meeting said it’s important to start thinking now about how the community wants to grow with the tech industry.

It’s a conversation that leaders in Seattle are only beginning to have with Amazon, which has grown from just a few thousand employees in the city to more than 40,000 over the last decade. Seattle’s median home price has soared from less than $500,000 to more than $750,000 along with it.

Rebecca Bagley, Vice Chancellor for Economic Partnerships at the University of Pittsburgh. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

“Amazon has done us an incredible service by raising the conversation” of the impact on the community, and creating some urgency behind it, said Rebecca Bagley, vice chancellor for economic partnerships at the University of Pittsburgh, in her remarks to the crowd.

Jules Lobel, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, was at the meeting on Wednesday. He is part of an independent political organization behind a petition demanding the city and county reveal the entire financial incentive package offered to Amazon. Pittsburgh leaders organizing the pitch for Amazon HQ2 are preparing to go to court to keep the details private for now.

“It’s important to know, for example, where they are planning to locate it and what that’s going to do to the community,” Lobel told GeekWire. “We can’t know that right now because it’s all secret. It’s also important to know how this will help create money or provide money for the city through increased taxes to rebuild the infrastructure of the city.”

The draft petition, intended to be submitted to the city council, says that “public subsidies require open public process and community benefit for all, with agreements to not increase racial, gender or class inequality.”

Lobel asked the panel if it’s possible to have an open community dialogue if the city and county do not release the details of their incentive package to Amazon. Bagley said the city should have a discussion about its inequity and infrastructure challenges regardless of whether the incentive package is made public. She also noted that financial incentives typically come from state government.

William Generett Jr., vice president for community engagement at Duquesne University, said attracting corporations for economic development is like playing a game like checkers.

“There are some rules to checkers,” he explained. “Now, maybe checkers is the wrong game to play because you’re only going to get certain things when you play checkers. But if we’re saying that we’re going to play checkers like we play chess, OK, we can do that. But let’s just know what the repercussions are.”

The second community forum on Amazon HQ2 will be held Saturday, Feb. 10 at 11 a.m. at the Human Services Building in downtown Pittsburgh.

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