Analysis: A Region That to Survive May Need to Lego and Let God…
The news arrived in Boston with mirth and joy. Not quite Santa Claus, but Lego was coming to town. The Danish toymaker known for colorful, interlocking pieces ably licensed both from and to blockbuster films, was relocating their offices and 740 jobs from Connecticut to the Hub. It is to join an education center already in the Back Bay section of Boston.,
Further west, the news hit like a ton of bricks. The Nutmeg State home Lego is dumping is in Enfield a town of 42,000 closer to Springfield than Hartford. While the full move-out is years away, it sent a chill up the 413’s I-91 spine.
For now, it does not seem the commonwealth gave Lego much to seal the deal. Intrastate relocations are not uncommon, but Massachusetts knifing its western frontier—or any outlier region—for Boston would feel like a betrayal. That does not appear to be the case, but worries will persist.
While the national and state economies are strong, Western Massachusetts is at least hiccupping, echoing cycles of years past. For decades now, the West’s storied brands have been gobbled up by owners far away. Even still local, but big names have developed wandering eyes for other fields.
Overall Connecticut is doing well economically, but the strength varies. The uncertainty of offices threatens Hartford’s hopes for downtown rejuvenation even as West Hartford Center blooms with activity. Communities with easy access to the Big Apple latched onto pandemic demographic shifts while weakness endured in Eastern Connecticut, outside Electric Boat’s SONAR radius.
The stretch between Hartford and Springfield had been in transition long before the pandemic. Employers have reduced staff in corporate office parks while Lego itself has been pulling back for years, a harbinger of this day. Its manufacturing and packaging operations left over a decade ago. This churn in Northern Connecticut affects the economy north of the border in Western Massachusetts.
Diana Szynal, the president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce said her group was “saddened” to see Lego go.
“While we are glad that they will remain in Massachusetts, we never like to see a great company like Lego leave our region,” she emailed. “Springfield enjoys a strong reciprocal economy with Northern Connecticut, particularly along the Route 91 corridor, and we recognize the loss of jobs will be felt here in Western Massachusetts.”
Szynal observed that the transition timeline is generous and was hopeful their employees would look to the Springfield market for new positions.
One Massachusetts State Senator whose district borders Enfield described the loss as a burden that crosses state lines.
“Enfield is right over the border from Longmeadow and East Longmeadow,” Jake Oliveira, the Senator for the Hampden, Hampshire & Worcester district said in a statement.
“Although I am encouraged to hear all the employees based in Enfield will have the option to move and have a job waiting for them in Boston, this is still a loss for Western Mass,” he continued. “We have a regional economy in Western Mass, and a loss for Connecticut is a loss for Western Mass.”
Lego’s departure plans come amid news Yankee Candle was closing offices in Deerfield. More recently, struggling Bed Bath & Beyond said it would close Enfield and Pittsfield stores. MGM confirmed it will not meet its promised employment goals. Retail in the region has retrenched considerably. At one time, major national stores had spots in the major malls in Greater Springfield, including in Enfield.
Unlike those losses, however, Lego is not packing up its bricks due to economic woes. Rather, as Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont suggested in a statement, Lego sought something outside the state’s control.
“Based on my conversations this morning with LEGO’s leadership, their move is motivated not by any Connecticut policy but rather LEGO’s desire to consolidate their business operations near the company’s Education Office and to enhance their partnership with MIT,” he said in a January 24 statement.
Lamont was nonetheless confident his state could attract businesses given its advantages in education, workforce and quality of life.
That is probably true and the state’s economic health, to say nothing of Lamont’s margin last year, suggest Nutmeggers are happier than not. But as with Massachusetts, the advantages are not uniform. Lego indicated to The Boston Globe a major concern was attracting and retaining talent. With a partial in-office mandate, an anonymous corporate office park—near a prison no less—would not do, or so Legos claimed.
Lego will begin staffing its Boston office to come online in 2025-2026. Current employees can move with the company, but their in-office days would have to be in Boston.
When the news initially broke, Boston City Hall disclaimed any role. The state had made no apparent inducements either. Then the Boston Herald spoke to Peter Abair of MassEcon who credited Mayor Michelle Wu and Governor Maura Healey’s teams with jumping into action. Abair did not respond to a request for comment.
Although Healey has welcomed Lego, the Healey administration has not spiked the football either. Her administration has indicated conversations date to early December—when former Governor Charlie Baker was still large and in charge. Primary support for Lego from the state will be via MassHire, a state entity that helps employers with recruitment.
Still, Lego’s reasons to bail come at a time of uncertainty for the region. Rail service to Boston seems closer than ever, but is far off from a cure-all.
It is not an abstract question, but rather one that has haunted Springfield for some time.
How long will MassMutual stay in Springfield? If Enfield and Hartford have the problem of keeping businesses that are not lured by tax breaks or other incentives what chance does Greater Springfield and the wider 413 have?
MassMutual has brushed off such concerns for years and the company consolidated several functions in Springfield in 2018. State tax breaks smoothed that process over. Though it came with new jobs in Boston, on net Springfield benefited—again at Enfield’s expense. Still, some wonder.
Although its headquarters yields Springfield largest single tax bill, MassMutual increasingly seems part of the 128 set. It opened a gleaming new office in Boston in 2021 with architectural motifs that evoke its occidental roots. Mayor Domenic Sarno was even on hand as another tie to bind—certainly not to inadvertently midwife a blow to his own city’s prestige.