Amazon in Tennessee; amazing growth, amid taxing questions
Amazon has committed to three more Centers in Tennessee, and to start collecting sales taxes in 2014. But it insists other on-line retailers must be required to as well, nationwide.
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Hectic though it is, Groundhog Day at Amazon's Chattanooga Fulfillment Center is nothing compared to the rush this past Christmas.
A Christmas that almost wasn't.
"It was not expressed as a deal-breaker," says Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey, the former Hamilton County Mayor who helped broker the deal that brought Amazon's distribution warehouses to Hamilton and Bradley Counties in late 2010.
"It (not having to collect sales taxes) was what got them to look at us."
"And, enabled us to bring to Tennessee a more than $270 million investment," says Paul Misener, Amazon's Vice President for Global Public Policy.
"It brought 3300 full-time jobs, with comprehensive healthcare benefits, because we resolved an impasse."
The deal Governor Bill Haslam brokered, if Tennessee lawmakers pass it, requires Amazon to begin collecting Tennessee sales taxes in 2014.
It changes the rules mid-game, but Misener says the only way to keep the game fair is for Congress to pass legislation enabling states to require all online retailers, or e-tailers, to collect sales taxes.
"If there's a situation where Tennessee collects only from Amazon, it would be foregoing 80 percent of its online sales tax revenue," Misener says.
Governor Haslam has estimated that could translate to $200-300 million annually. He toured Amazon's facility at Enterprise South, now nicknamed Chattanooga One, Thursday afternoon.
The facility covers two million square feet on two levels. It employed more than 1200 full-time workers in 2011, and added 2800 seasonal workers to fill orders for Christmas.
"We're currently converting hundreds of employees to full-time workers," says Mike Roth, Vice President of Amazon's North American Operations.
"We were blown away by the support we received from Tennessee and by the incredible commitment of our employees in Chattanooga, Charleston and Lebanon."
Roth has declined to offer specifics as to how many 'hundreds' of seasonal hires have been offered permanent employment. Chattanooga managers would not say how many workers were processing orders for Thursday's shift, explaining that staffing levels vary.
Amazon is building two more 'Fulfillment Centers' in Middle Tennessee. It also has committed to 'building out' unfinished space in its Chattanooga. When completed, the workspace under roof will be equivalent to 28 football fields, Roth says.
Governor Haslam took in those numbers as he took the 'cook's tour' with members of the area's state legislative delegation, several Hamilton County Commissioners, County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, and at least three members of the Chattanooga City Council.
He told reporters that the sales tax debate was crystallized for him when he realized that a friend's order from Amazon wasn't books, but a case of detergent.
"There's this idea that we're taxing the Internet. No," he says. "Online, off-line, this is all retail. And that's sales tax that states have an obligation to collect."