In Enfield, Conn., a bid for Amazon tinged with irony
ENFIELD, Conn. —
With no customers at the moment, Cindy Graham, a 54-year-old stylist and entrepreneur with a purple streak in her hair, and her drowsy English bulldog, Phoebe, shared a chair and streamed a movie — “The Beguiled,” a Civil War drama of love and betrayal.
The mall lost its Sears recently, too, and JC Penney is long gone. The loss of the anchor stores spurred a cascade of smaller store closings. It’s a scene repeating itself in dying suburban malls around the country, a sweeping economic disruption known as the Amazon effect.
“People order online now,” Graham said.
But if the town holds any hard feelings toward the retail giant, it’s setting them aside in the spirit of practicality. In a keen irony local officials have embraced in full, the town is promoting this sleepy suburban mall, decimated by online shopping, as the centerpiece of its long-shot bid for Amazon’s new headquarters, and the 50,000 jobs the company pledges to create.
“Think about just how funny it would be,” said Mike Ciriello, director of development services for Enfield, a town of more than 40,000 just south of Springfield on the Massachusetts border. “How ironic would it be if they took over the mall?”
Or any of the numerous mall-based bids offered up to Amazon last week from across the country. Analysts at Cowen & Co. anticipate that 20 percent of the 1,200 US shopping malls will soon meet their demise, and that’s led developers in Dallas, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix to propose defunct malls as potential sites for Amazon’s second headquarters.
Setting aside the irony that malls might be reborn to serve an agent of their destruction, there is a clear logic to the plan.
Many of the sites met Amazon’s basic requirements, offering huge footprints and easy highway access.
Still, many observers scoffed at the idea that a tired old mall might attract one of the world’s most innovative companies. Amazon doesn’t act out of guilt, some said.
“Yes, Amazon and other online operators have decimated a lot of these more far-out suburban mall operations,” said Leon Nicholas, a Boston-based analyst for Kantar Retail. “But the idea of one of these towns being on any kind of list, forget short list, is fanciful at best.”
Suburban locales with huge empty retail sites would be better pitching themselves as locations for Amazon distribution centers, he said. If he lived in such a town, he would ask officials: “Why are you wasting any time at all with my tax dollars trying to get Amazon to come? It’s completely out of touch with reality.”
Others said there are benefits to thinking big, no matter how unlikely the wished-for outcome.
“Putting together a proposal and focusing on something that’s really mind-blowing and game-changing” can help municipalities come up with new ideas, said Frank Hoy, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Foisie Business School. In that sense, the cost of preparing those bids amounts to an investment in the town’s future, he said.
“I’m convinced that some of these communities will figure out, ‘Well, we didn’t get Amazon, but look at what we’ve done together and let’s make a difference with that,’ ” he said.
Long odds or not, Amazon’s unprecedented sweepstakes, widely seen as a once-in-a-lifetime golden ticket to economic vitality, proved too tempting not to chase.
“What the hell,” said Enfield Councilman Edward N. Deni. “We have nothing to lose.”
Enfield sent its pitch shortly before Thursday’s deadline. Enfield went with a folksy style, packing local facts and demographics into a newsletter from the future headlined: “Internet Retail Giant Pumps Life Back into Dying Mall!”
It was a wildcat bid, not among those endorsed by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who backed proposals from the Hartford and Stamford areas. But Enfield’s bid found support across state lines, including the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, and local officials decided to see the process through, said Mike Vezzola, who worked on the Enfield bid as director of the North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce.
Enfield’s pitch is a wry acknowledgment that it lies between the giant metro areas of New York and Boston, along the hostile front between Yankee and Red Sox fans.
“We’re an accident of geography,” Ciriello said. “We’re the biggest region you’ve never heard of.” (Though the name may ring a bell. Massachusetts also used to have a town called Enfield; it was obliterated in the 1930s in the creation of Quabbin Reservoir.)
“If Amazon is looking at Boston and New York, with us they can have both,” he said
One victim of the slow demise of the Enfield Square Mall, Cynthia Olechny, said she’d be willing to set aside her grudge against Amazon for the sake of the headquarters bid. Olechny ran a bookstore in the mall with family from 2011 to 2016, but closed as mall traffic fell.
“You have to think about what would be good for the town,” Olechny said. “Connecticut needs people. Our population is declining.”
David Goykman, 65, who runs a watch repair and engraving business in Enfield Square, said the mall is “kaputski.”
“It’s not just this mall, it’s all over,” he said. Still, the notion of bringing Amazon to Enfield struck him as farfetched. “To bring 50,000 jobs, you have to have qualified people to hire,” he said.
Graham, the stylist watching a movie with her dog, said she had a hard time picturing Amazon at the mall.
“Kinda weird, right?” she said. “It would never fly in this town.”
There are residential neighborhoods nearby. Plus the last out-of-the-box idea for the mall — to turn the former JC Penney space into a casino — went nowhere, she said.
She would hate to move her shop, too — though, it occurred to her, 50,000 Amazon workers would need to get their hair cut somewhere.
With no activity in sight, no sound except the soft rock piped gently through the mall’s PA system, her dog fell asleep and began to snore.