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This was no ordinary good-news jobs announcement. This was Amazon.com, the worlds largest online retailer, and its founder saying, Hello, Huntington. Were coming to join you.
This was January 13, 2000, the day more than 400 excited people gathered at Marshall Universitys Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center to hear confirmed what had been rumored and speculated for weeks that Amazon.com, indeed, is coming to town.
None of the distinguished guests or curious onlookers were disappointed. In fact, they were jubilant. You can never have a company that it would mean more to have in West Virginia than Amazon.com, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. I am in awe and thrilled by what it holds out for us.
What it eventually will mean to Huntington is 375 new jobs, paying a minimum of $8 an hour to start. What it means this spring is 150 jobs, with the other 225 or so to come in the next couple of years. What it also means, one expert said, is an economic explosion in Huntington that will total, conservatively, some $29 million a year.
What a day! This was more than an announcement. It was a celebration. And why not? While many wondered why a company worth tens of billions of dollars would choose to locate its East Coast customer service center in Huntington, one of its officials said, Why not?
Huntington is a shining jewel that many people havent discovered, said Joe Galli, Amazon.coms president and chief operating officer. Its a great town, the people here are special. Its a unique kind of community. The people here care about each other.
Those attending the affair rose to their feet and applauded heartily when the curtain rose to the ceiling in dramatic fashion, and there on the stage stood Galli and Jeff Bezos, Amazon.coms founder and CEO. Both were dressed casually and grinning from ear to ear.
The 36-year-old Bezos, a wizard of the Internet whose share of Amazon.com is worth $10.5 billion, was Time magazines 1999 Person of the Year. He appeared almost giddy as he thanked those who helped negotiate the deal and told the audience the importance of good customer service.
This is kind of the defining moment for the city of Huntington, said Jerry McDonald, president of the Huntington Area Development Council. This brand name of Amazon.com is like AOL or Yahoo. It will help bring additional technology-based companies here.
The customer service center will take calls and e-mails from all over the world. Because of tax reasons, only West Virginia residents cannot take advantage of the centers service.
Amazon.com allows people to use their home computers to shop for books, compact discs, videos, toys, games, electronics and home-improvement items. They also can sell items through the company. In all, Amazon.com has 13 million customers in 160 countries.
The January 13 announcement was supposed to have been a secret. Apparently, though, such good news for the city was difficult for those in the know to keep under wraps and, inevitably, word got out. Have you ever been the guests at a surprise party, and you knew what the surprise was? A. Michael Perry, chairman of HADCO, asked the big crowd before introducing Bezos.
Once on stage, Bezos said, Lets just be glad were not the National Security Agency.
Though it would be nice to think Amazon.com chose to even consider Huntington because of its workforce, reputation, location and technology, the reality is that the city had a connection. Galli is the ex-husband of Becki Galli, whose father, the Rev. R.F. Smith, retired in 1999 after 20 years as pastor of Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington.
Last summer, when Smith was visiting his daughter in Baltimore, he learned that Joe Galli was in the process of negotiating with several states, trying to find a home for an East Coast customer service center. At the time, Joe Galli was ticked off at North Carolina because it had given Amazon.com an unfavorable tax ruling, which put a damper on those negotiations. When Becky Galli asked her ex-husband, Why dont you go to West Virginia? he paid attention. He took her seriously. Almost immediately, he and Smith began talking about the possibility of Amazon.com actually locating the center in Huntington. After all, Galli had always loved the city when he visited, and still does. We talked and I said, Are you really interested or are you putting me on? Smith said.
bviously, Galli formerly global president for Black & Decker in Baltimore was serious, and Smith knew it. Smith called Perry and asked him to call Galli, which he did. McDonald then got involved and negotiations began.
Still, this would be a business decision, one best for the company, which made Smith wonder if Huntington really had a chance. As the process continued, Smith said he scratched his head and wondered, Is this for real?
Down the stretch, Huntington was competing with Kentucky, North Carolina and North Dakota for the center. North Carolina was close to landing the center, but pretty much took itself out of the running. All Amazon.com needed was a favorable nexus ruling from the states tax office. A nexus ruling determines whether a company has a sufficient physical presence in a state to make it subject to that states taxes. Steve Christian, national accounts manager for the West Virginia Development office, said North Carolina tax officials decided that a customer service office in that state would require residents to pay sales tax on their purchases from the online retailer.
It was not what Amazon was looking for, Christian said. West Virginia got back in the hunt, because of the Smith-Galli relationship, and eventually got approval for what Christian called a positive (tax) ruling.
McDonald said Amazon.com sent five different groups of people to Huntington during negotiations. Around Thanksgiving, Amazon.com officials met with Huntingtons negotiators at Perrys farm in Wayne County. Over a meal of beans and cornbread catered by the Central City Cafe, they negotiated a deal that was finalized before the end of the year. Amazon would have never made the decision to come to West Virginia if it wasnt a solid business decision and they didnt feel really good about it, Christian said.
Hundreds of people hoping to land jobs with Amazon.com lined up at a job fair at the Huntington Civic Arena the two days following the announcement to submit resumes and fill out applications. They came from throughout the area and beyond, many from nearby Ironton, Ohio, where more than 1,000 jobs have been lost in the past year. Workers could be earning as much as $17 an hour and receiving full benefits. The company is looking for workers with an intense dedication to customers and the company, and the willingness to work hard and learn new skills. While Galli and Bezos both said the presence of Marshall University was a major factor in their decision to put the center in Huntington, that doesnt mean only MU students are being or will be considered for jobs. Working mothers, career changers and others can apply as well.
Apparently, the spin-off from Amazon.com will result in even more jobs, so those who dont get hired at the new company should keep the faith. Michael Hicks, director of the Center of Applied Research in Marshalls Elizabeth McDowell Lewis College of Business, said the 375 jobs at Amazon.com should result in 195 additional jobs in Cabell and Wayne counties.
For now, the service center is located on the top two floors of the Jean Dean Public Safety Building in downtown Huntington. Plans call for Amazon.com to eventually be the lead tenant in the $10 million, 33-acre Huntington Business and Technology Park, which will be built on West Virginia 10 just off of Interstate 64.
Before the Amazon.com announcement, the park was only a dream. But, with the arrival of such a world-renowned company, the Governors office secured the funding for the crucial project. Construction starts this summer.
Construction of Amazon.coms new building, McDonald said, hopefully will begin by February 2001.
Office Box 384 Huntington, WV 25708-0384