For more than 40 years, Connecticut has been home to one of the titans of the Dow, General Electric. But now the state is playing a game of “will they or won’t they?” with one of its most high-profile corporate citizens. GE said earlier this year that it’s reconsidering where to site its headquarters building, and a final decision is expected by the end of the year.
So if GE does decide to pull up stakes for Atlanta, or some other location, just what will be left behind?
The town of New Canaan prides itself on its quaint, village atmosphere, and on wearing its considerable wealth discreetly. This community is home to GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt. Realtor John Engel of Halstead Property said the housing market here has already seen some softening in recent months, so for him the prospect of GE leaving — and taking its well-compensated headquarters workers — is pretty scary.
"Eight hundred more homes coming on the market throughout the county is going to have a significant impact on the housing market in these towns,” Engel said.
And in addition to all those hard-to-sell, multi-million dollar homes, the region will lose the millions of dollars in taxable income earned by those seasoned, experienced workers. “It’s going to be a real shame if this jolt to the housing market, to the local economy occurs, and we have to address how to replace those jobs, replace those kids in the school system, replace those empty tables at our restaurants,” Engel said.
In New Canaan’s picturesque downtown, one of those restaurants is a local favorite for GE executives: Chef Luis, owned by Luis Lopez. Lopez has been working in the restaurant trade here since the 1990s, and he’s seen good times and bad.
Outside Chef Luis Restaurant in downtown New Canaan. (Harriet Jones)
“Now that they leave,” he said, “probably other companies will be leaving too, and that means that there is no money that is going to be spent. Employees lose their jobs, local people, so that means they don’t go out. So it will hurt the business, of course it will hurt our business.”
Connecticut’s Fairfield County, just a short commute from Manhattan, has long had a concentration of corporate headquarters and wealthy hedge funds. But it has been struggling to find its feet since the financial crash.
“To put it bluntly, it’s a seismic event if one of these organizations leaves,” said David Lewis. Lewis’s company, Operations Inc., provides human resources services to small businesses in Fairfield County, many of them tied to business relationships with big corporations. GE says it spends $14 billion a year with Connecticut suppliers. Not all of that would leave with the headquarters, but Lewis is worried.
“For what it sends in terms of a message about whether or not this county is still a viable place to do business,” he said. “That I think is one of the biggest concerns.”
So there are business relationships, there is housing, and there’s all that disposable income. But there’s also community involvement. Last year GE gave some $10 million in charitable contributions in Connecticut, and its workers — who sit on hundreds of boards throughout the state — gave 49,000 volunteer hours.
At the Stamford warehouse of AmeriCares, a forklift moves pallets of donated medical supplies for another disaster response. This national nonprofit has benefited from a close partnership with the GE Foundation, which has spent millions of dollars funding programs since the 1980s.
"They’re very hands on, and I mean that in the most positive way," said AmeriCares' CEO Michael Nyenhuis. "They’re a close partner, they work with us in the design and development and evaluation of the programs that they fund. And the fact that we are close enough to have regular face-to-face meetings no doubt helps that.”
AmeriCares expects its relationship with GE to survive any headquarters move, but that won’t be likely for other charitable activity here. It’s difficult to imagine a Georgia- or New York–based company giving $3.2 million to public education in Stamford, Connecticut, or funding housing in disadvantaged Bridgeport.
But not everyone here is expecting the worst. “People put down roots — companies don’t. Not any longer,” said Chris Bruhl, the CEO of the Business Council of Fairfield County.
Bruhl’s taking the long view. "The idea of departure to find the right headquarters for your line of business doesn’t mean that the people left behind in Fairfield County are going to be a smoking ruin, right? We will simply move on and adapt.”