Taking after Amazon, USDA releases final locations for a new government headquarters

Meet your contestants: Indiana, Kansas City, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

Last October, after a press scrum held on the subject of cell-cultured meat, agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue tried to explain why he hired private professional services firm Ernst & Young, rather than the Government Services Agency, to lead the controversial relocation of two of his department’s key agencies outside of Washington, D.C

“I’m treating this as an economic development project,” Perdue said. “It’s the same thing, frankly, as [what] Amazon is doing with their headquarter relocation. It’s a very business-like approach. These federal jobs are quite a jewel for communities.”

Today, the comparisons with Amazon continue, as the USDA has announced a round of finalists for the relocation of the Economic Research Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The three locations now under top consideration are the North Carolina research triangle—three major universities located in the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill; the greater Kansas City region, which is home to over 300 companies in the Animal Health Corridor; and the state of Indiana, whose application was submitted by Purdue University, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, and the state itself.

St. Louis, Missouri, and Madison, Wisconsin, remain under consideration as alternative locations.

Critics say the reasons for the move are political in nature, as ERS findings consistently contradict policy goals of the Trump administration.
This is the third such announcement, following prior announcements that had whittled down the finalists from 136 contestants, to a “middle list” of 67 potential sites. Quality of life, capital and operating costs, workforce statistics, and logistics infrastructure were the primary criteria in deciding the new homes of the two agencies, according to a department press release.

“Secretary Perdue’s reality show style contest to relocate ERS and NIFA has driven top-notch researchers [away] from the USDA,” Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement released earlier today. “Under the guise of ‘draining the swamp,’ Perdue has gutted agencies responsible for independent evidence-based research on critical issues as diverse as salmonella contamination, obesity prevalence and the health of rural economies.”

Critics say the reasons for the move are political in nature, as ERS findings consistently contradict policy goals of the Trump administration. Perdue has stated that he would release a  cost-benefit analysis for the proposed move by mid-May.

As we’ve reported, workers at ERS and NIFA are voting later this month to unionize, and join the American Federation of Government Employees, which is already lobbying lawmakers in the House and Senate to stop the move, which is being done against the wishes of employees, who will be forced to leave the Capitol region, or find new jobs in town. Under the department’s relocation plan, 15 percent of ERS employees will remain in D.C., according to Peter Winch, an organizer with the union.

“Our intention is to stop this move, to thwart it,” he recently told The New Food Economy. “And if anything, USDA seems to be speeding it up.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.