It happened: General Electric is leaving Fairfield for Boston. The political blame game has already begun, and the economic pain is sure to be sharp. What’s worse, though, is the blow we’ve taken to something much more fragile than the economy: our collective self-esteem and identity.
General Electric finally confirmed Wednesday that it was abandoning its headquarters in Fairfield, where the company has been since moving from New York City in 1974. GE has been threatening to move since a messy fight over taxes this past summer.
Republicans pounced immediately, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who had been the guest of the First Lady at the State of the Union the night before, found himself on the hook. “This hurts,” Malloy admitted in a press conference Wednesday.
But how much will it hurt? Certainly, losing hundreds of high-paying jobs is a fairly big deal for our small state, and it’s going to have ripple effects. The town of Fairfield will feel the loss most keenly; plenty of other businesses depend on revenue from GE’s employees. It won’t plunge us back into recession, but it’s a hard hit to absorb.
The fallout will be much worse politically. Because it was Democrats’ passage of certain taxes last summer that sparked all this moving talk, they’ll feel the brunt of it. The griping about Connecticut’s rotten “business climate” as well as our current cycle of debt, deficit, and taxes, began almost as soon as the Boston Globe broke the story. The line from Republicans is that Democrats hate business, spend too much, tax too much, and rack up too much debt for companies like GE to stay.
And there’s something to that. According to Rep. John Frey, R-Ridgefield, the presentation Connecticut made to GE to convince them to stay was “a complete embarrassment” and included a picture of a competitor’s engine. Oops. Certainly the Malloy administration and the Democratic leadership in the legislature have never figured out how to connect with the business community, as last summer’s tone-deaf tax package proves.
But all of that has very little to do with why GE is moving to Boston. After all, it’s not like the tax situation in Massachusetts is much better than here.
Companies move for lots of reasons, and not always the ones that are either presented or that seem obvious. It’s like when a sports team moves and fans blame attendance or the strength of a city as a market for that sport. The St. Louis Rams just announced they’re moving back to Los Angeles — is that because L.A. is a better football market? Were St. Louis fans bad fans? Nope. The Rams are moving so their owner can build a fancy new stadium, be the envy of the league, and make a ton of money.
And that’s a big part of why GE is moving, too. Boston and the state of Massachusetts are promising all kinds of goodies in the form of public funds—$145 million worth—as an incentive to head north, and at this point in time GE’s execs would much rather have a sparkling new headquarters on the waterfront in trendy, exciting Boston than their old building in a sleepy Connecticut suburb.
When GE moved to Fairfield from midtown Manhattan in 1974, companies leaving inner cities for the suburbs was the big trend. Fairfield seemed new, quiet, and safe compared to creaky, “dangerous,” and crowded New York. In that way big companies mirrored a lot of middle class white Americans who left the cities for the suburbs. In fact, GE came under fire from groups like the Suburban Action Institute for relocating to a town that was inaccessible to lower-paid racial minorities because of its zoning laws and housing costs.
But now, companies like GE want to be where the action is, and that’s in the cities. Suburban office parks feel like relics, and GE is desperately trying to rebrand itself as a nimble technology company instead of an ancient, plodding mid-century conglomerate. They can do that better in Boston than in Fairfield.
That leaves us out in the cold, though; and it’s a bitter cold indeed. After the economy absorbs the blow and the political aftershocks fade, we’ll still be feeling the loss in our hearts. GE’s headquarters was something we could be proud of, something that made Connecticut seem world-class, and now it’s gone. It’s like a bad break-up with economic consequences.
Connecticut is a state that suffers from fragile self-esteem and a deep inferiority complex. If you feel that more heavily this winter, you have General Electric to thank for it.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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