Regional Report: Northeast 2016

Ten years ago, the West Philadelphia area between Philadelphia’s Center City 30th Street Station and the neighborhoods surrounding Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania was allocated to a post office mail sorting facility and acres of parking lots. Today, the dreary space has been transformed into Cira Centre South, one of Pennsylvania’s newest, and most vibrant, mixed-use communities.

The development, planned and built by Brandywine Realty as a so-called “vertical neighborhood,” has begun reinvigorating Philadelphia’s downtown with 2.7 million square feet of office space, retail property and residential condos.

“Global companies like FMC have the opportunity to expand anywhere in the world,” said ex-PA governor Tom Corbett. “FMC chose to grow here.”

In June, the FMC chemical company plans to move into its new 49-story headquarters. The opening of the 730-foot FMC Tower will symbolically complete the community, whose mix of mass-transit oriented logistics, livework-play design and flexible office space provides a template for 21st-Century urban planning—and economic hope for aging downtowns everywhere. Its location offers easy access to Amtrak service to the east, connecting businesses with East Coast cities from Washington to Boston. The residential build-up means workers can walk or bicycle to work, rather than buy cars.

Pierre Brondeau, CEO of FMC Corporation, links Cira Center’s contemporary mixed-use environment with his company’s decision to relocate into the new tower. “Our ability to retain and attract the best talent is critical to our success,” he said. The new headquarters “will provide an office environment that encourages employee collaboration, engagement and creativity.”

“Global companies like FMC have the opportunity to expand anywhere in the world,” said ex-Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett. “FMC chose to grow here.” Other transit-centered, mixed-use neighborhoods have risen along the Northeast Corridor, notably Boston’s Innovation District, which occupies 23 acres of South Boston’s Fan Pier waterfront.

In mid-January, GE confirmed it was relocating its global headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut to the seaport-based Innovation District. In announcing the move, CEO Jeff Immelt cited the appeal of being at “the center of an ecosystem” in a “dynamic and creative city.” With the relocation, GE becomes Massachusetts’ largest publicly traded company.

The District was effectively completed two years ago when Boston lured Vertex Pharmaceuticals from nearby Cambridge with $12 million in real estate tax breaks and job-creation incentive payouts. Vertex opened its $850 million corporate headquarters in February 2014, uniting its Massachusetts employees in a building featuring abundant natural light, trophy views of Boston Harbor and outdoor recreation spaces. Vertex also set aside about 3,000 square feet of classroom space for use by Boston educational institutions. The expectation is that the company will eventually hire some of their students.

“Some companies are good at reinvesting in employees, but it’s about helping them become better employees.”

“Making medicines is a team sport that requires hundreds of people working together for many years, and these buildings were designed to bring all 1,300 of our Massachusetts employees together in one space for the first time,” said Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden. “As a company committed to discovering new medicines, I can’t think of a more inspiring environment—the Innovation District—in which to do business.”


In 2014, a record 170,000 commercial entities named the Diamond State their official home, bolstering its rep as a business haven. But in some key categories that diamond is losing its luster. The number of fully operational companies—as opposed to shell corporations—registered in Delaware has shrunk by about 11% since the decade began.

A series of federal judicial decisions has loosened its grip on the corporate legal world. Delaware’s financial services industry, in part a reflection of its pro-business allure, has also weakened, eroding profits and payrolls; a stronger 2015 suggests recovery is in process. The state’s mature chemical cluster, which has been anchored by the Du-Pont family holdings, now faces instability and job losses due to fallout from the chemical giant’s planned merger with Dow Chemical. The aeronautics sector is outpacing manufacturing, contributing over $7 billion a year to the state’s economy. Liberalized casino gambling laws permitting blackjack and similar table games boosted the gaming industry.

Wilmington and Dover, the state’s largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), will “continue to enjoy modest labor market progress in the near term,” forecasts PNC Financial Services Group. Meanwhile, Wilmington struggles to reverse the perception that it is a dangerous town.

GE broke tradition last spring when it condemned legislative plans for a $1.5 billion tax increase, including about $700 million aimed at businesses. In January, the corporation announced it was relocating to Massachusetts, lured by at least $120 million in grants, tax abatements and other subsidies. Insurance giants Aetna and Travelers also joined the anti-tax hike chorus. When the hikes were slimmed down then signed into law, disgruntled state legislator Themis Klarides likened the expanded tax bite to “holding up a sign at the border (telling) businesses… to get out.” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy justified the increase as funding infrastructure improvements.

To ensure those improvements materialize, a transportation lock-box plan was floated this winter by the MetroHartford Alliance. Despite governmental stumbling, New Haven economist Donald Klepper-Smith forecasts 1% growth this year. Still recovering from the Great Recession are the Hartford and Norwich-New London areas. The Hartford-centered insurance industry, the state’s biggest cluster, is rebuilding. In December, Serta-Simmons agreed to hop the border and relocate 15 miles away to Windsor Locks. Norwich-New London, the state’s largest MSA, remains recession-mired, down 11,000 jobs since 2008. Greater New Haven is doing better, having recovered jobs lost in the downturn.

Maine’s real GDP inched forward between 2013 to 2014 at a glacial 0.2% pace. That reed-thin expansion was enough for Pine Tree State economists to sigh with relief; calming fears of negative growth. Personal income in the state grew 2.7% from 2014 to 2015. A tight labor market vexes employers, who want the state to do more to rejuvenate its graying work force. Maine’s low rate of inbound migration remains “the primary source of concern” for the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission, a quasi-governmental group. Portland is experiencing the largest boom it has seen in years, much of it centered on the Eastern Waterfront district. The Arts District is thriving too. Several municipal programs are fueling the state’s biotech and marine sciences cluster through R&D grants and commercialization initiatives.

Maryland, which lagged the U.S. in GDP growth in 2014, revved up considerably in 2015, overcoming fears of federal shutdown and government spending restrictions. But signs of weakness remain: wages are stagnant, the housing market is soft and labor participation rates sag.

Towson University economist Daraius Irani projects the labor market will grow under 2% this year and then fall below 1% in 2018. Anirban Basu, an economist with the Sage Policy Group in Baltimore, projects 25 GNP growth this year. Both see the state economy retrenching within several years.

Times have been tight in California-Lexington Park, the state’s largest MSA. Unemployment rose to 6.3% last year, from 4.8% the year before; job growth was 1.2%. Job growth in the Baltimore market picked up but continues to lag the nation, with payroll remaining static last year after growth in the beginning of 2014. The city’s reliance on federal employment and government spending—and weak positioning in high-tech and other cyclical industries—dulls growth prospects short-term.

Massachusetts is experiencing a “burst of economic growth reminiscent of the 1990s,” asserts Alan Clayton-Matthews, economics professor at Northeast University and lead author of the New England Economic Partnership’s annual forecast.

The Bay State economy is expected to add 200,000 jobs from 2015 to 2018. Fastest-growing clusters are technology, business and professional services, leisure and hospitality, education and healthcare.

Increasingly Boston and Cambridge compete to recruit fast-growth biotechs, pharmaceuticals and other high-tech employers. New waterfront construction in Beantown draws heavily from Cambridge; Cambridge continues generating entrepreneurs pursuing their life science dreams.

WHO Jeff Immelt, President and CEO, General Electric

SITE HISTORY The “world’s digital industry company,” as GE dubs itself, traces its origins to Thomas Edison’s laboratory in New York City. GE was incorporated in 1892 when Edison’s company merged with the Thomason-Houston of Lynn, Massachusetts, then took headquarters space in Schenectady, New York. In 1974, the company relocated to Fairfield, Connecticut. After last year’s tax hike, however, Immelt went public with his disappointment, launching a well-publicized search for a new home in June. Lured to Massachusetts by a $120 million incentive program, GE will move to an as-yet-undisclosed location in Boston’s waterfront Innovation District by 2017.

WHY MASSACHUSETTS? GE builds on what is already a significant presence in Massachusetts, with nearly 5,000 employees across the state in businesses including aviation, oil and gas and energy management. In 2014, GE moved its life sciences headquarters to Marlborough. Last year, GE announced it was relocating its energy services start-up, Current, to Boston.

REASON FOR LOCATION “Greater Boston is home to 55 colleges and universities. Massachusetts spends more on R&D than any other region in the world, and Boston attracts a diverse, technologically fluent workforce focused on solving challenges for the world. We are excited to bring our headquarters to this dynamic and creative city.”

The economy is humming, but a tight labor market—and sluggish in-migration—hampers growth. After decades of luring Massachusetts residents annually by the tens of thousands, that pace has slowed to a crawl. An overhaul of “outdated” land-use and zoning policies could help attract new residents, says Dennis Delay, an economist with the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. Delay and other economists expect steady economic expansion through 2019. The New England Economic Partnership forecasts New Hampshire will continue to lag GDP growth and job creation in both New England and the nation.

Northern New Jersey’s economic mainstays—telecom, professional services, pharmaceutical research and manufacturing—show moderate growth, while education and healthcare outpace the nation. Moderate job expansion has bolstered consumer spending, aiding the retail, entertainment and hospitality sectors.

Professional services, long a Garden State mainstay, show signs of recovery from recessionary doldrums. JPMorgan Chase’s decision to relocate to Jersey City from Manhattan yielded 2,100 jobs—and a jolt of optimism at a time when most corporate traffic was heading out of state.

While the Garden State is closely connected to both New York and Philadelphia metro economies, such local clusters as biotech and software development expect moderate growth, offsetting stagnation in pharmaceuticals, telecom and manufacturing. Infrastructure improvements, including port-facility upgrades, may fortify economic growth in the trade and transportation sectors. Regulatory changes from Washington have roiled the financial services industry, shrinking payrolls.

Native son site selector Dennis Donovan, of Wadley-Donovan-Gutshaw Consulting, praises the state’s incentive and subsidy programs, but wishes permitting could be sped up. Central-state MSAs, including Trenton and Edison, have grown fitfully; net growth lags behind the national pace.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo nettled business leaders last year by raising the minimum wage for state workers to $15 an hour, the highest in the country; such hikes drive up labor costs for the private sector as well. He regained ground by relaunching plans to renovate Manhattan’s forlorn Pennsylvania Station, an antiquated rail hub serving New Jersey, the New York suburbs and Amtrak passengers. New York is doing a “fine job” making upstate more competitive through tax abatements, say site selectors Donovan and Renzas.

Employment grew about 2% last year, adding about 170,000 jobs as most metro areas experienced growth. Healthcare and social services led the gainers, followed by construction; Midtown Manhattan swarms with cranes. Professional, scientific and technical clusters pace expansion. The service industry, including jobs on Wall Street as well as in hospitals and social service agencies, drove New York City’s job growth in 2015, and should continue in 2016. Hospitality, food services and retail grew significantly as well, reflecting a surge in tourism. Last March, mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $150 million public-private partnership tasked with driving investment in life sciences. New York City’s surging economy bolstered local markets fanning out from midtown; the New York-Newark-Jersey City MSA is largest in the U.S.

Pennsylvania’s economy still trails the nation’s, but signs suggest improvement ahead. Ascending industries like life sciences, engineering and healthcare are expanding payrolls. Government services and corporate recruitment programs have been dialed back, reflecting a lower revenue base. With the manufacturing cluster downsizing, workers sometimes lack in-demand skills, especially in rural areas, says site selector James Renzas of the RSH Group. In Philadelphia, new buildings have begun to sprout, after years of a static skyline—although rents in Center City remain relative bargains.

Commercial development, such as FMC Tower and development in the Navy Yard approach completion. Northwest Pennsylvania, including Erie MSA, looks to enjoy “somewhat stronger economic growth” this year forecasts PNC Financial Services Group. The group sees manufacturing rebounding, professional and business services growing and consumer spending on the upswing. In Pittsburgh, gains in healthcare employment have offset losses from the natural gas sector.

Overall, Pittsburgh’s employment is at an all-time high. Harrisburg employment rose about 2% last year, reflecting government hiring, as well as payroll expansion in transportation and logistics. In Scranton, Tobyhanna Army Depot is moving forward with a $105 million renovation project slated for completion in 2017.

Rhode Island inches forward on the road to post-Recession recovery. The Plantation State’s economy “has sustained its recovery, but also displays troubling signs of major structural problems,” says Edinaldo Tebaldi, economics professor at Bryant University in Smithfield. With 1.8% GDP growth rate, Rhode Island is again forecasted to lag behind both New England (2%) and the U.S. (2.3%). Chronically postponed infrastructure repairs have relegated nearly a quarter of the state’s 1,162 bridges to structural deficiency. Many business leaders support Rhode Works, a proposed $4.7 billion infrastructure repair project linked to 11,000 new jobs.

Business owners last year gave their state government an “F” in categories like ease of starting a small business, regulations, tax code, licensing and zoning in a study conducted by, a business services firm. Gov. Gina Raimondo, citing the Ocean State’s dead-last finish in a poll of entrepreneurs, champions initiatives like the Qualified Jobs Incentive Program. Tax reform over the past two years has slashed the corporate tax rate from 9% to 7%, introduced combined reporting and eliminated sales tax on utility bills. Now, “we have a much better tax climate and economic climate,” says House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

The state economy is crawling forward slower than at any time since World War II, report government economists Jeffrey Carr and Tom Kavet. Behind that dark cloud are bright spots, especially in Chittenden County and other northern districts. Corporate profits rose to a record $122 million in 2015. The tourism industry there recorded a record 4.7 million ski visits last year.

Business owners, however, are antsy. The Green Mountain State finished 49th out of 50 states on economic outlook in an annual Rich States, Poor States survey tracking tax rates, labor policies and regulatory burden. Vermonters groused over last year’s $30 million tax hike, which increased sales taxes and reduced deductions. Advocates cheered the new southern Vermont economic zone established last year, though officials neglected to set goals and provide funding.

Washington is still the place to go if you need to be near the federal government. Unfortunately, that benefit doubles as the capital’s biggest drawback. Uncertainty over government budget-cutting casts a pall over micro-economic forecasting. “A renewed push for trimming federal outlays would further slow growth in Greater Washington,” observes PNC Financial Services Group. “Over the longer run, the Greater Washington area will adjust to a structurally smaller federal government.”

Warren Strugatch: Warren Strugatch is a writer, speaker and consultant based in Stony Brook, NY. He covers economic development, global business, management and marketing.
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