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Protests could derail St. Louis' bid for second Amazon hub: sources

By Brendan O'Brien
FILE PHOTO: A woman who was pushed down by police is helped by a protester while police try to disperse a crowd, after a not guilty verdict in the murder trial of Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, charged with the 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. on September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Lawrence Bryant/File Photo

By Brendan O'Brien

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Protests in St. Louis over the acquittal of a white former policeman who killed a black man could impede the city's bid to attract Amazon.com's second headquarters, academics and business executives said.

Marked by scuffles, teargas and property damage, the protests have been unfolding as the city, which has a history of social unrest, is vying for the lucrative Amazon deal.

"There is no good timing for something like this and it will have an impact," said Didi Caldwell, founding principal with Global Location Strategies in South Carolina, which helps companies choose locations for new businesses and expansion.

Amazon, the world's biggest online retailer, said this month that it planned to build a $5 billion second headquarters that could bring 50,000 new jobs to the winning city.

An Amazon spokesman declined to discuss the site search.

In its call for proposals from cities, Amazon said a "compatible cultural and community environment" that included diversity, a high quality of life and stable business climate were key. The company intends to make a decision in 2018.

William Collins, a Vanderbilt University economic historian who has studied the aftermath of the 1960s race riots in the United States, said the impact on a city's ability to draw new employers depended on how companies view such incidents.

“Does it suggest a deeply rooted problem that's likely to make living, working, and investing in a particular location less attractive or less profitable than alternatives? If so, it can have lasting implications,” Collins said.

A September 16 ruling found former St. Louis policeman Jason Stockley, 36, not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, 24.

'NATIONAL ISSUE'

In August, after clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, over plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, regional economic development officials wrote to site selection companies saying the violence did not define the city.

St. Louis Economic Development Partnership officials said they were aware of racial tensions highlighted by the protests but argued that the problem was not unique to St. Louis.

"The protests, although the timing of them was not the best for St. Louis, are really indicative of a national issue that needs to be looked at," the partnership's Chief Executive Sheila Sweeney said on Thursday.

The day before, protesters at a high-end shopping mall blocked traffic and chanted, "No justice, no profits."

Other cities that have indicated they are in the running for the Amazon site include Seattle, Dallas, Houston and Denver.

Charlotte, North Carolina, which saw riots last year after the fatal shooting of a black man by a police officer, has not seen business opt against moving there. Officials, who noted that the city's efforts to break down bias led to the protests, said quantifying any lasting impact was difficult.

"It's a troubling challenge of our time," said Dianne Chase, spokeswoman for the Charlotte Regional Partnership, a public/private economic development organization trying to attract Amazon. "We're not alone, it's most unfortunate to say."

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson declined to speak on the issue, but told reporters this week that the city had a legacy of institutional racism and needed to move forward with more jobs and stronger civilian oversight of the police.

St. Louis is touting its central U.S. location, riverways, interstate highways and rail lines, vibrant technology environment and urban setting, as its main attractions.

While the city is a transportation hub with a low cost of living, good housing stock and access to research universities, the unrest could hurt its chances even if it made Amazon's final list, said Global Location Strategies' Caldwell.

Companies looking for locations will never announce they have eliminated a city for reasons like racial unrest, but that would likely be the case, she said.

St. Louis residents expressed concern on social media over economic impact related to the unrest.

“People were saying, 'Unless the city cleans up its act, we’ll never get Amazon,'” said Lindenwood University economics professor Howard Wall.

"Sometimes the economics are sort of a wash and it just becomes about where am I more comfortable doing business and living," Caldwell said.

The St. Louis metro area has been a hot spot for the national debate over racial bias in law enforcement since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed in 2014 by a white police officer in nearby Ferguson. The Brown shooting sparked riots and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Additional reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Ben Klayman, Toni Reinhold)