Workers sort shipments at the Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga. (Photo: Staff)

Three months after announcing an agreement for Amazon to begin collecting Tennessee sales taxes in 2014, Gov. Bill Haslam visited Amazon’s fulfillment center at Enterprise South for the first time. 

The governor, along with several other public officials and local leaders, was in attendance to mark the “grand opening” of the 1-million-square-foot facility. The center, which currently employs 1,700 people, shipped its first package in October and hasn’t let up since.

Three of Amazon’s five distribution facilities planned for Tennessee have already been built. By the time all are completed this year, the Internet retail giant will have invested $350 million in the state and created 3,500 full-time jobs.

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During his opening remarks, Paul Misener, director of global public policy for Amazon, hinted that the company wasn’t finished with its long-term plans for Chattanooga.

“You may know this facility is called the ‘Chattanooga One’ facility,” Misener said. “The ‘one’ is suggestive. We’re all counting on counting.”

Misener added that Amazon’s sales tax deal brokered with the state last fall resolved an impasse “in an amicable way” that was beneficial to all parties involved. Under the agreement, which awaits final passage in the state legislature, Amazon will begin collecting state sales taxes in 2014-unless a solution to the issue is passed at the federal level. 

Gov. Bill Haslam tours the Amazon facility. (Photo: Staff)

Calling the collection of online sales tax a “huge issue for our country,” Haslam said he hoped that federal lawmakers would realize that states should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding the issue.

“The legislation has to pass on the federal level, but it’s revenue that impacts states,” Haslam said. “So in some ways, there’s not a lot of ingrown incentive for a congressional representative or a senator to vote for that. But my argument would be that Washington, given the current situation to the deficit, is going to be sending less money to the states . if that’s true, then they owe it to us to let us make our own decisions about the tax that’s owed to us.”

Last November, Sen. Lamar Alexander co-introduced the Marketplace Fairness Act, which is supported by Amazon and would provide states with the option to collect sales taxes owed under current law from out-of-state businesses instead of relying on consumers to pay the taxes themselves-a process deemed as widely ineffective. Sen. Bob Corker is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Earlier in the day, Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey said he did not think landing Amazon distribution centers in both Hamilton and Bradley counties would have been possible without granting the company a sales tax exemption for the first two years, a move estimated to amount to a loss of  $30 million a year in both local and state taxes. 

“They would not have come, I don’t think so,” Ramsey said. “It was not expressed as s deal-breaker, but it was part of the criteria to get them to look at us . If they had built in Georgia, we still wouldn’t have the $30 million in taxes, and we wouldn’t have all the jobs.”

Following the dedication ceremony, officials took a tour of the facility-covering the equivalent of more than 28 football fields’ worth of floor space. As workers sorted and organized packages to be sent across the nation, Haslam described his tour of the center as being an “eye-opener” to the way the retail world works today. 

“It’s impressive to see the size of the facility, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2, the amount of product that will be delivered all over the country from Chattanooga, Tenn., [is impressive]. And finally, obviously, it’s an impressive number of jobs. I’m grateful for Amazon making the capital investment here and the number of people who will be employed here. And that number will continue to grow, obviously.”

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