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February 6, 2023 Editorial

Bordonaro: Business community must step up efforts to promote Hartford, other CT cities

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED LEGO’s existing education office in Back Bay, Boston.

As Connecticut continues to lick its wounds following LEGO’s announced plans to relocate from its longtime U.S. headquarters in Enfield to Boston, there will be plenty of debate about what drove yet another major employer to flee the state.

Not helping is the fact that just one week earlier, Campbell Soup Co. announced it was closing subsidiary Pepperidge Farm’s Norwalk headquarters as the processed food and snack maker consolidates operations in New Jersey.

Some will blame Connecticut’s usual weaknesses — high costs of living and doing business and over-regulation.

Greg Bordonaro

While those remain significant challenges that policymakers should address, they apparently weren’t the driving factors behind LEGO’s decision to abandon its Enfield home of nearly 50 years and move 740 employees 100 miles northeast to Boston.

In an announcement about the pending move — to be completed in 2026 — Skip Kodak, LEGO Group’s Americas president, described Boston as “one of the best cities in the world to attract and retain talent,” and that the city’s “world-class academic institutions, skilled workforce and great quality of life makes it an ideal location for our U.S. head office.”

It’s the same message we heard from General Electric and Alexion Pharmaceuticals when they announced plans — in 2016 and 2017, respectively — to also relocate their Connecticut headquarters to Boston. Both said New England’s largest city offers a more dynamic urban environment that attracts the best and brightest minds.

What’s most concerning about LEGO’s pending move — and other similar ones that came before it — is that it portrays Connecticut’s biggest selling points as potential weaknesses.

While policymakers can work to make Connecticut more affordable for businesses and residents, it will never be a low-cost state, at least not anytime soon.

If companies are hell-bent on operating in a place that offers low taxes, lower energy prices and little regulation, Connecticut is not it.

What the state has historically offered, and what’s been inscribed in countless marketing materials over the years, is a highly educated and skilled workforce, top-notch colleges and a great quality of life — precisely what LEGO said it’s in search of in Boston.

So, does Connecticut suddenly lack these attributes?

In my opinion the answer is no, and when you compare Massachusetts and Connecticut there are a lot of similarities. Both states are highly educated — 91% of their respective populations have at least a high school degree, while 40.6% of Connecticut residents have at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 45.5% in the Bay State, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Nationally, 33.7% of the U.S. population has at least a bachelor’s degree.

Ten percent of both states’ populations are in poverty.

Surprisingly, Connecticut has fared better in population growth since the pandemic began in 2020.

From July 1, 2020, to July 1, 2022, Connecticut added 28,843 residents (when including net births and foreign immigration), while Massachusetts saw its population shrink by 13,755. That’s a net difference of nearly 43,000 residents.

However, Massachusetts still has nearly double the overall population with 6.9 million residents as of last July, compared to Connecticut’s 3.6 million residents.

That means employers there have a larger talent pool from which to recruit.

But what really separates the two states is the existence of a major city where top talent wants to be and is concentrated.

Connecticut will never have a Boston. But the continued flirtation of major Nutmeg State companies with Massachusetts’ most populous city underscores the need for Connecticut to continue to build up its cities to make them more attractive to people and companies.

New Haven, with Yale University and a growing bioscience sector, and Stamford, with its proximity to New York City and a focus on financial services and fintech, have some momentum coming out of the pandemic.

Hartford, long considered a corporate office park, was hurt most by the pandemic and is still trying to regain its footing as companies downsize office space amid a broader embrace of remote work.

Restoring Hartford’s vitality will be key to the region’s economic future.

A more vibrant Capital City may have enticed LEGO to relocate its U.S. headquarters to Hartford instead of Boston. Logistically, that would have been an easier move, especially for the company’s sizable Greater Hartford workforce.

Investments are being made to change Hartford’s trajectory, particularly the addition of thousands of new apartment units.

The city must also better position itself as a center of insurance excellence.

There’s been some signs of success. In recent weeks, New York-based Global Atlantic Financial Group announced plans to expand and add jobs at its Hartford office in the Gold Building, while Talcott Financial Group announced plans to relocate from Windsor to downtown Hartford.

Last year, Sun Life also moved its Windsor office and about 300 employees downtown.

These are precisely the types of smaller, growth-minded companies that Hartford needs to attract. Economic development organizations must be aggressive in their pursuits.

But we can’t wait for government solutions to jump-start further revitalization efforts.

Despite the state’s recent budget stability, a new Adriaen’s Landing-type investment — which gave birth to the Connecticut Convention Center, Connecticut Science Center, and Front Street retail and entertainment district — isn’t in the cards, at least in the near term.

Hartford has plenty of assets and office space to accommodate growth. It needs leadership by the business community to promote and support the city — and get more employees back to the office — so Hartford can better attract the talent that companies like LEGO crave.

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