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April 3, 2023 Other Voices

To attract and retain the next LEGO, we need to think small

Onyeka “Ony” Obiocha is the new executive director of CTNext, a state-run organization that helps manage, support and build the state’s startup ecosystem.

What are companies like LEGO seeking in higher-cost, higher-tax Boston that they aren’t finding in Connecticut?

LEGO’s announced departure from Enfield sparked a public tour of self-reflection for Connecticut leaders.

Statewide, Connecticut has advanced sectors, robust college pipelines, and a surge in new residents since the pandemic, but as Susan Bigelow wrote in CTNewsJunkie, LEGO’s corporate departure from Connecticut is part of a larger trend of companies leaving suburban corporate campuses in favor of offices embedded in vibrant urban settings.

Even in the age of remote work, these companies are seeing cities as the best way to connect to dense networks of talent for their future hiring.

As state, regional and community leaders, it is our responsibility to adjust to these shifting trends and re-examine the way we engage with the professional vibrancy throughout Connecticut.

Approaching this challenge requires a change in the narrative. Our communities are so much more than “conveniently located halfway between” two global cities. The appeal of Connecticut’s lifestyle is more than quiet greenery, it is also the close connection to world-class talent.

Connecticut artists are nominated for Grammy Awards, our scientists win Nobel Prizes, our corporate offices steer global companies. The past five years have shown that dynamic innovation ecosystems are inseparable from the social economies of their place.

Our small size can mean faster connections and personal relationships with community leaders, if we invest in making these our strengths.

If we support our local entrepreneurs with the resources they need, they will fill our communities with activity: Access to shared kitchens and mentorship through New London’s RD86 and Hartford’s Culinary Collective and Swift Factory have supported new food establishments throughout each city.

Street markets in New Haven and Hartford feature new vendors. And new spaces have become community hubs, like the local artists and businesses launched at New Haven’s State House, or the way Stamford’s Third Place at Half Full Brewery gathers and connects aspiring entrepreneurs and the city’s corporate management leaders.

We are fortunate to have state leaders who share this vision. Governor Lamont is investing in Connecticut’s cities as our economic engines, with new initiatives like the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Communities Challenge and Innovation Corridor programs shaping urban infrastructure for inclusive growth, and the Small Business Boost fund capitalizing businesses to expand into those spaces.

Our state legislature created the Community Investment Fund, which addresses decades of structural inequities and charts a pathway forward for our state economy.

These investments show a shared vision between our cities and suburbs of regional economies anchored and powered by their urban centers, which attract new jobs and keep our next generation in Connecticut as they start their careers.

Last year, I started as the executive director of CTNext, a quasi-public economic development agency focused on supporting the groundbreaking entrepreneurs that call Connecticut home, both high-tech and community-based.

Our programs reflect our belief that, as a state, we must foster the conditions for sites of cultural collision and vibrancy to flourish.

At CTNext, we are approaching our cities as the backbone of our efforts to create accessible opportunities for Connecticut’s innovators to develop regional innovation ecosystems.

If we want to attract and keep the next LEGO, we need to invest in our cities and the innovation and culture within them.

When General Electric left Connecticut, it was a wake-up call to the shifting reality of economic urbanization. In the years since, we’ve made progress investing in our cities and the entrepreneurs who bring them alive, but LEGO’s relocation is a sign of how far we have to go.

Connecticut’s path forward depends on our ability to invest in this shared vision for inclusive growth through our

cities — and build the environment for the companies we hope will start, grow and stay in Connecticut.

Onyeka Obiocha is the executive director of CTNext, a quasi-public economic development agency.

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