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Locals look for silver linings as Amazon hits pause on its new HQ


Amazon's second headquarters were expected to bring 25,000 workers and an economic boost to the D.C. region. Now the project is on pause, and residents are unsure what lies ahead. Sarah Y. Kim from member station WAMU reports.


SARAH Y KIM, BYLINE: This noise might not even feel like noise by now for residents around Amazon's HQ2 in Arlington, Va. Today, construction workers are still busy finishing up two new office buildings, the first phase of the project. But once that's wrapped up, there will be a bit of silence. Amazon has not confirmed when construction will resume.

NICK FRESHMAN: It is what it is. We don't know what it means. We don't know what it's going to lead to.

KIM: That's Nick Freshman, a longtime resident of the area and owner of The Freshman diner. Since Amazon's announcement, his phone has been blowing up with messages from friends and colleagues.

FRESHMAN: There is just a really broad anxiety out there as to what is going to happen here and naturally over the next few years.

KIM: But Freshman says he's not quite as anxious. After all, his diner has already weathered the COVID-19 pandemic. He says this pause in construction is not even a blip.

FRESHMAN: You know, we try to keep a level head, keep our head down and just make sure that the beer is still cold and the food still comes out on time and my staff is taken care of and happy. And, you know, that's the kind of thing that we worry about day to day.

KIM: And he says his neighbors are also still optimistic about the area's future. Terry Clower directs the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. He says the pause is a temporary setback, and he doesn't foresee any long-lasting negative impacts on the local economy.

TERRY CLOWER: It actually, to me, is kind of good news because it means, you know, above else that Amazon's behaving in a business-rational fashion.

KIM: Clower thinks hybrid work is here to stay and that Amazon shouldn't create more space than it needs. He says Arlington already has a sizable vacant office problem. He also says local businesses could take advantage of the pause. They might be able to hire workers who might otherwise have gone to Amazon. Brett Theodos researches development and housing at the Urban Institute. Theodos says that there is a silver lining to this pause - rents won't be shooting up as quickly.

BRETT THEODOS: That said, it doesn't mean that rents are falling, and it doesn't mean they're not increasing.

KIM: There's also inflation, and Theodos says the cost of living in Arlington is already well beyond what a lot of people can comfortably afford. Rachid Maalouf is a server at Freddie's Beach Bar. He works multiple jobs to pay for his rent - more than $1,800 a month - and he's expecting it to climb to 2,000 or more in his next lease term.

RACHID MAALOUF: I mean, Arlington was already super expensive, but now it's, like - it's skyrocketing.

KIM: He's hoping that local leaders and Amazon do more to regulate the cost of living. As a software engineer, Maalouf is interested in working for the company someday, but with the pause on construction, he isn't convinced that Amazon will keep its original number of hires.

MAALOUF: Pretty hard to believe that right now in this economic climate.

KIM: And he says that would be a huge letdown for those who came to Arlington in the hopes of working for Amazon. The company, however, has said that it has not changed its plans to hire 25,000 workers for HQ2, and more than 8,000 of those workers are supposed to start their jobs at HQ2 this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Y. Kim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Y. Kim