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Alexion Betrayal Points To A Deeper Problem

Losing General Electric's headquarters to Boston was bad. Losing Aetna's headquarters to Manhattan was worse. When United Technologies announced that it was building a $300 million research center in Brooklyn instead of Connecticut, that stung too.

But losing Alexion Pharmaceuticals could be the most jarring loss of them all. The company was born in New Haven and was nurtured in Connecticut over the last 25 years as a cornerstone of the state's foray into cutting-edge biomedical technology.

Now, as part of a wider corporate shakeup, the company is moving its headquarters to Boston. Yes, it will leave a research center behind in New Haven, but the move sends the message that businesses do not view Connecticut as a place where they can reinvent themselves to compete in the new economy.

If that's the perception of Connecticut's economic culture, civic leaders must focus on changing it, now. We don't want to be the place cutting-edge companies used to be.

It's time to look in the mirror with equal parts honesty and determination. Perhaps being the land of steady habits used to work as a plus. Now it just says "boring." We need a new look, a new image. "Still Revolutionary"? Maybe a slogan that doesn't invoke the 18th century.

Alexion's move is confounding in a way, because Connecticut did a lot right in incubating the company. Connecticut made the tax environment about as friendly as can be (some $25 million worth of tax credits, along with a $20 million loan that would have been forgiven). The company, now a $3 billion business, has a new building right in the middle of New Haven, which itself is a hive of tech and bioscience talent.

The state has made other major investments in bioscience, including but not limited to the Jackson Laboratory For Genomic Medicine in Farmington, which got nearly $300 million worth of taxpayer love.

With those pieces in place, Connecticut should be a place where businesses, especially bioscience, believe they can thrive. The momentum is undeniably there.

But in a press release, Alexion said Boston will afford access to a "larger biopharmaceutical talent pool and a variety of life-sciences partners to further support future growth initiatives."

This may be the downside of being so close to New York and Boston.

Connecticut can take a bit of solace in that Alexion's decision isn't motivated only by a desire to flee. After a rocky few months and top-level changes, the company announced Tuesday that it was undergoing a major corporate shakeup that will include a cut of 20 percent to its workforce and the closure of a Rhode Island facility, along with the move of its headquarters to Boston.

It will leave New Haven with a research and development center in the building it moved into only a year and a half ago, and it has indicated that it will return the millions of dollars' worth of financial incentives it received from the state. Like getting the engagement ring back, that's some cold comfort.

It's easy to be angry, and we should be, about the betrayal. But there is a bigger issue: Why wouldn't Alexion stay?

The state is in desperate need of a solution to this riddle, and endless regurgitation of the old list of "what's wrong with Connecticut" isn't it. The problem goes deeper than whether tax incentives are the right tool to keep and retain business and talent.

This is no time for finger-pointing. It's time for business and political leadership in Connecticut to figure out what needs to happen, in a cohesive and targeted way, to fix the state's business culture and change what people believe — and say — about Connecticut.

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