Since 1974 when the GE Corporation settled into a seven-acre campus near the Easton border, it has helped power the economic and philanthropic life of Fairfield. Take a look.
First Selectman Mike Tetreau says being home to a multi-national company that ranks eighth on the Fortune 500 has brought a value-added benefit far beyond the $1.8 million it pays in property taxes, making it Fairfield’s single largest taxpayer. GE means jobs (800 in Fairfield alone), millions of dollars for local nonprofits and economic support to suppliers throughout the region.
In a move that drew national headlines, Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt announced in June that GE had launched an exploratory search for a new home for its headquarters. At issue is the passage of a tax passage by the Connecticut legislature that included retroactive tax increases for state businesses. In an email to employees written shortly after the two-year budget passed, Immelt noted that he had assembled a committee charged with looking for states that might offer a more pro-business environment.
What’s at stake if GE moves? Beyond saying goodbye to its vital tax contributions, the town will also see the company pack up the corporate cachet of its name. “Just the PR value of saying GE calls your town home is almost incalculable,” Tetreau says.
There are real dollar and cents considerations, too. Pam Baldwin Foarde, a Realtor with William Raveis Real Estate’s Al Filippone Associates LLC, says the market impact that might occur if scores of GE executives began sticking “for sale” signs in their front lawns has already been discussed by her colleagues. While she notes that the town remains hot with New Yorkers looking for relief from exorbitant real estate prices, she adds that “inventories here are already high. Where will all the new buyers come from to buy these homes? That’s the million dollar question.”
From bankrolling philanthropy to the time its employees donate to volunteerism, Sacred Heart University President Dr. John Petillo notes that GE has been “an exceptional community partner” throughout the region; a fact that’s been evidenced directly on campus, such as GE professionals who give their time in the classroom, internships and jobs for graduates. He adds, “We have benefited from the generosity of former GE CEO Jack Welch, whose name is on our College of Business.”
Juanita James of the Fairfield Community Foundation, sums up the broad view: “It would be a devastating blow to the sector to lose their leadership and their volunteers.”
As Tetreau surveys the potential impact of a hypothetical departure, it sounds like he’s describing the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy; awful but survivable. “It’s important to remember that the money we’re talking about, while incredibly substantial, amounts to less than one percent of our overall total town budget,” he says of GE property taxes. With low tax increases and the town’s excellent Triple A credit rating, he notes Fairfield could weather the loss of GE, “but that’s certainly not the position we would ever want to be in.”
Tetreau says GE’s search is a wakeup call to state leaders to reflect on the kind of business environment they want to create and sustain. “I’d like to see the ad in the Wall Street Journal that talks about all the reasons businesses should be moving to Connecticut. We can’t place that ad, because we don’t have a plan. I’m looking for a strategic direction that goes beyond the obvious things we have to offer; great schools, a talented workforce, a great quality of life.”
GE hopes for some results from its exploratory search by November. Tetreau concludes, “No one wants to see their employees putting their things in moving vans.”
GE ON THE RECORD
June 1, 2015
“Retroactively raising taxes again on Connecticut’s residents, businesses and services makes businesses, including our own, and citizens seriously consider whether it makes any sense to continue to be located in this state.”