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New York State not giving up on future Amazon project, ESD chief says

"We should never burn bridges," said Howard Zemsky, CEO of Empire State Development, the state's primary business-aid agency. "The governor is not burning any bridges - certainly with Amazon."

From left, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Empire

From left, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Empire State Development CEO Howard Zemsky seen on Dec. 13, 2017. Photo Credit: Tim Roske

New York State hasn’t given up on winning a future Amazon expansion project, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s economic development czar said Thursday.

“We should never burn bridges,” said Howard Zemsky, CEO of Empire State Development, the state’s primary business-aid agency. “The governor is not burning any bridges — certainly with Amazon. They're a huge employer here in the state.

“And you know sometimes ‘No' means 'Not now’; sometimes ‘No’ means ‘Heck, no.’ In part, it depends on how we respond to these types of circumstances,” he told a Manhattan meeting of the ESD board of directors.

They were the first public comments from Zemsky since Amazon pulled the plug on its proposed second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, a week ago. The HQ2 project was projected to create 25,000 jobs with pay averaging more than $150,000 per year, and tax revenue to the state and city of $27.5 billion over 25 years.

In rescinding the deal on Feb. 14, Amazon didn't announce an alternative home for the Queens office. The online retailer said it would move forward with plans for a Virginia office in suburban Washington, D.C., and an operation in Nashville. Both, along with Queens, were winners in a yearlong competition by Amazon to choose sites for a bigger presence outside of its home base in Seattle.

Amazon also said it would continue hiring at its three New York City facilities, where more than 5,000 people currently work. A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Zemsky, a Buffalo real estate developer who grew up in Woodbury, expressed sadness and shock at the loss of what he said was the largest economic development deal in state history. Amazon had been promised nearly $3 billion in tax incentives from the state and city.

He said he never anticipated the fierce opposition to HQ2 from some Queens politicians and activist groups. 

Zemsky also said criticism of the successful career of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos by the project's opponents was out of line.

"This is not someone born into royalty. ... He started a business in his garage and ended up being, in many ways, the most successful business person in the world," Zemsky said of Bezos, who came up with the idea for Amazon 25 years ago while driving from New York City to Seattle. "We should never talk about that, in my opinion, in a way that suggests that it’s immoral or unethical or in any way inappropriate."        

Zemsky vowed not to be deterred by the Amazon project's scuttling. “There’s a lot to do. … We’re not done with economic development,” he said. “We’re in the business of providing people with opportunity."

ESD board member Robert R. Dyson, a professional investor from upstate Millbrook, called for an Amazon HQ2 post-mortem, saying, "Let's make sure this doesn't happen again. ... How do we bring all of these opposition people to our side?"

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