PhillyDeals: Amazon enticed to build in Delaware

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announcing plans to close 49 Catholic schools. Villanova University professor Peter Zaleski has questioned the decision to close two high schools, Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announcing plans to close 49 Catholic schools. Villanova University professor Peter Zaleski has questioned the decision to close two high schools, Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 11, 2012

Online retail giant Amazon.com has won local approvals to build a million-square-foot "fulfillment center," with 850 full-time workers and up to 2,500 seasonal jobs, on 78 acres in Middletown, Del., a half-hour south of Wilmington.

Delaware promised Amazon $7 million in road improvements and job-training grants to help attract the facility, said Gov. Jack Markell's spokesman, Brian Selander.

Middletown "gave them 10 years' tax abatement, free and clear," town manager Morris Deputy told me. The municipality will make some money by selling Amazon water and electricity from its publicly owned utilities, "and there's benefits to the restaurants and satellite businesses and hopefully a bump for some of our homebuilders."

Why does Amazon need tax breaks? Its sales topped $1 billion a week last fall, but profits fell as the company plowed cash into buying and building mobile sales and software companies. Amazon is one of the few big U.S. employers that has used the business slump to open new buildings and hire workers.

Braden Cox, Seattle-based Amazon's director of state public policy and its public face in extracting concessions from taxpayers in exchange for jobs in several U.S. states, did not return calls.

Amazon already employs about 400, plus more during the Christmas shopping season, at its 1990s-era plant near New Castle, Del. Middletown is a short drive from Cecil County, Md., where blue-collar jobs have been extra scarce since the Chrysler plant in neighboring Newark, Del., and its auto suppliers closed in 2008.

Amazon was attracted to Delaware during the original dot-com boom, partly because the state is one of the few that does not charge sales tax and is convenient to ports and highways.

Amazon also has built fulfillment centers in Pennsylvania, at Breinigsville (near Allentown), Carlisle, Gouldsboro (near Mount Pocono), Hazle Township (near Hazleton), and Lewisberry (near York).

Ten states host Amazon fulfillment centers, where crowds of low-paid workers "pick and pack" orders to send through the mail and, increasingly, to Amazon depots at convenience stores, colleges, and other sites.

The centers are surrounded by predominantly white, low-wage, semirural communities near interstate highways. Amazon has avoided putting job-rich shipping facilities in Philadelphia or other big cities.

Tough numbers

Peter Zaleski, a 25-year professor of economics at Villanova University, sent Archbishop Charles J. Chaput a respectful letter questioning the "economic sense" of closing the two Upper Darby-area high schools, Monsignor Bonner (boys) and Archbishop Prendergast (girls). One of his sons is a Bonner grad, but Zaleski's children are now grown, he told Chaput, "so I do not have a personal stake."

Zaleski said the archdiocese's own metrics - student population vs. potential capacity, utility expenses, and other operating costs - would look a lot more favorable for Bonner/Prendie if one of the two main campus buildings were sold and everyone moved into the other.

He also questioned the reliance on falling "feeder school" enrollment at nearby parish schools, which is less relevant now that the archdiocese has removed high school district boundaries. Chaput and one of his aides "responded very promptly and cordially," Zaleski told me.

By contrast, another Bonner grad told me it makes sense that the archdiocese plans to shut Bonner/Prendie and West Catholic. Follow the numbers, he said: There are more than twice as many registered Catholics (85,241) in the 14 parishes that immediately surround Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield (Delaware County) than the total number of registered Catholics (38,589) in all the parishes in West Philadelphia and the neighborhoods around Bonner/Prendie. No longer trying to win urban souls, the church is following its members out of town.

He still lives near his old neighborhood, but sends his kids to more expensive Catholic prep schools.


Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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