Ian Morrison: Sacred Heart University buying Boston-based GE's former headquarters in Conn.

  Part of the former GE complex in Fairfield.

Part of the former GE complex in Fairfield.

Sacred Heart University (SHU) has purchased General Electric’s (GE’s) former global headquarters site in Fairfield, Conn. This 66-acre parcel will become an extension of SHU’s nearby main campus, as well as its Stamford Graduate Center. The acquisition is a strategic and practical move for the university, which has needed room to expand several existing programs and campus facilities, in conjunction with new building and renovation work.

The GE site, which SHU will call its West Campus, includes 550,000 square feet of existing building space for current and future use and 800 above-ground and underground parking spaces. The West Campus is expected to attract more than 250 new students and expand faculty and facilities staffing requirements by at least 50 people.

The relocation of GE’s corporate headquarters to Boston was seen as a significant blow to Fairfield’s economy and to the state. GE was Fairfield’s largest taxpayer, and many of its executives and staff resided locally. Not all of the GE employees who worked in Fairfield were forced to move, though; several hundred transferred to the company’s facilities in nearby Norwalk, Conn. Still, GE's departure left a void in support for local nonprofit organizations.

In announcing its reasons for leaving, GE cited the lack of innovation and incubation opportunities in Connecticut and noted the presence of dozens of colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area that, combined with access to a skilled pipeline of new workers and supportive industries, made the Boston area more attractive for long-term future growth. Additionally, with so many employees working from home and remote locations, GE had outgrown the need for such a large physical campus.

Ironically—given GE’s stated reasons for exiting the state—SHU will use the property as an “innovation campus.” This will include housing for the university’s recently announced School of Computing (computer engineering, computer gaming and cybersecurity) and new programs in the STEM fields, including health and life sciences, science and technology.

The School of Computing will house two graduate programs—a master’s in computer science and information technology and a master’s in cybersecurity. It also will offer undergraduate programs in computer science, information technology, game design and development and computer engineering. SHU’s game-design and development program has been lauded by The Princeton Review.

The University will move elements of its Jack Welch College of Business (WCOB) to the new campus, including its new hospitality management program that will make use of facilities both at the GE site and at SHU’s recently acquired Great River Golf Club in Milford, Conn. This expansion is particularly timely, as expenditures in the rapidly growing global hospitality industry are estimated at approximately $3.5 trillion annually.

The SHU hospitality major addresses food and service management, lodging operations, beverage management, human resources, tourism and revenue, and pricing and data analytics. The WCOB also requires students in its hospitality management program to complete internships and has developed collaborative relationships with hotels, restaurants and related service partners. Of note, the new campus site includes a hospitality wing that contains a hotel with 28 guest rooms, conference rooms, fitness centers and a medical facility.

The university also plans to move its College of Education and business office to the site, eliminating the need to rent space elsewhere. Additionally, the purchase will allow the university to pursue partnerships with local healthcare providers, offering clinical opportunities for students in SHU's colleges of Health Professions and Nursing.

SHU’s growing community of teachers, staff, students, their parents and visitors already spend close to $56 million in the regional economy. Additional new spending is estimated at $27 million to $33 million annually. But having a local college or university also brings many additional benefits beyond economics.

Institutions of higher learning support new-business development, collaboration and incubation across a range of sciences, business and the arts that will continue serving as a beacon to current and prospective employers, manufacturers and residents. Additionally, other vocations benefit from the presence of a local college, as demand rises sharply for restaurant workers, construction crews and other less-skilled jobs.

As an example of support for regional business and organizational growth, Sacred Heart already works with a variety of Connecticut cities, towns and organizations sharing expertise and resources. SHU’s Center for Not-for-Profit Organizations, offered through the WCOB, has conducted more than 200 local projects for close to 100 regional clients. Founded 14 years ago, the center has provided strategic planning, competitive analyses, feasibility studies and marketing planning for businesses, health organizations, art associations and museums.

The university intends to provide incubator space that would allow students, in conjunction with investors and area businesses, to develop their creative ideas for new products and programs. Overall, SHU’s move to this new campus directly speaks to new-business incubation and the need for an active pipeline of skilled workers—exactly the types of innovation large corporate employers—GE included—have been clamoring for to meet the needs of today’s rapidly evolving economies.

With the purchase by SHU, Fairfield should receive payments from the state’s PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) program, which compensates Connecticut towns and cities for tax revenue they do not collect from nonprofit entities such as colleges, universities and hospitals. Those dollars are based on formulas established by the Connecticut Legislature and, in part, determined by tax revenue collected statewide. Future PILOT-related reimbursement revenue from SHU also will include growth at several local facilities now being renovated for classes, administration and housing.

Colleges and universities play a critical role shoring up the infrastructure and long-term viability of the communities and regions they call home, explained SHU President John J. Petillo. This, he pointed out, includes new manufacturing jobs and creative collaborations that help meet employer and community needs in fields like science, engineering, public education and health services.

These important economic growth stimulants are now at risk as public funding and financial aid for private colleges and universities continues to decrease. To remain competitive and successful, institutions of higher learning must continue aligning themselves and their programs with emerging industries and evolving employer, nonprofit and organizational requirements.

Sacred Heart’s purchase of the former GE headquarters property to expand its business, technology, hospitality and human services programs directly reflects this commitment to continued growth and future needs.

“This is a transformational moment in the history of Sacred Heart University, and for Connecticut,” Petillo said. “With this property, SHU has a unique opportunity to expand its contributions to education, research, healthcare and the community. SHU is vested in the success of our students and in the continued success and prosperity of the region. We are happy to be contributing toward our state’s economic growth and proud to be a continuing catalyst for the future generations of employees, residents and business owners.”

Ira Morrison is a writer and communication consultant. He has worked as a communication manager for several Fortune 500 companies and was an adjunct professor at the University of Hartford School of Communication. This piece started at the Web site of the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe,org)