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Sneaker Makers Stake Claim in Boston

Younger, more skilled workers prefer to be closer to the amenities cities and their neighboring communities provide, industry watchers say

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    AP
    In this Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 photo, Classic "Chuck Taylor" sneakers are positioned outside the world headquarters of Converse, Inc. as a runner passes in Boston. Some of America's top sneaker makers are racing to the Boston area.

    Shoe makers are racing to the Boston area as they compete for millennial talent. 

    Reebok picked the city's rapidly growing Seaport District for its new global headquarters in December, following in the footsteps of New Balance and Converse, both of which opened splashy new headquarters in 2015 that helped redefine the city skyline. 

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    Just outside the city limits, Wolverine World Wide Inc. — the Rockford, Michigan-based owners of Saucony, Keds, Sperry and other brands — opened a regional campus in Waltham for 370 workers this summer after moving it south from Lexington, Massachusetts. 

    And the Rockport Co., purveyor of casual and dress shoes, is slated to christen a new headquarters for 212 employees in the affluent Boston suburb of Newton later in January. The company was sold in 2015 by Adidas AG, the German sportswear giant that still owns Reebok International Ltd., to a standalone company formed by New Balance Holdings Inc. and a private equity firm. 

    The new locales recognize that younger, more skilled workers prefer to be closer to the amenities cities and their neighboring communities provide, such as better transit, more restaurants and greater cultural options, over more distant suburbs, industry watchers say. 

    "These companies cluster because they're primarily looking for talent. You want to be where the people are," said Matthew Powell, a sports industry analyst for the NPD Group, a New York-based market research firm. "They're also trying to stay close to their consumer. Millennials are clustering in large cities, so it's a great way to be plugged into where your consumer is." 

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    The moves also affirm New England — historically the nation's footwear-making region — remains a viable center of the industry, said Nate Herman, a senior vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association trade group. 

    Most shoe companies have long since moved manufacturing overseas or other parts of the country where labor is cheaper, but New England and the Boston area in particular still have the largest concentration of workers versed in design, sourcing, marketing and other aspects of the industry, he said. 

    The concentration of shoe companies in Boston could help spur new innovations in the industry, said Lauren Beitelspacher, a marketing professor at Babson College in Wellesley. 

    "I think you'll start to see this evolution of more refined footwear. You'll see a resurgence in the artistry, design and development from this merging of fashion, innovation and design," she said. "The talent is here to create a really unique ecosystem." 

    Officials with Converse Inc. say the decision to relocate its 500 workers from Andover, Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border, was a "natural choice," given the company's heritage — founded just outside Boston in 1908 — and the city's "rich culture." 

    The company, owned by Oregon-based sportswear giant Nike Inc., now occupies a prime spot overlooking the Charles River and TD Garden, its massive corporate logo greeting drivers entering the city from points north. 

    New Balance spokeswoman Amy Dow said the 110-year-old company's sleek new global headquarters — which opened next to its decades-long home in the city's Brighton neighborhood and houses roughly 600 workers — reflects a "relentless dedication" to become one of the top athletic brands. 

    The cruise-liner-looking headquarters, which towers over the Massachusetts Turnpike as drivers approach Boston from points west, is part of an ambitious development that includes practice facilities for the NHL's Bruins and the NBA's Celtics, a hotel, residences, a commuter rail station, and a track and field complex. 

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    Reebok, which is moving from Canton, about 20 miles south of downtown Boston, promises its planned new global headquarters will be equally game-changing. 

    Company president Matthew O'Toole has said the office — located in a dockside warehouse already home to a range of design and creative firms — will be the "fittest, healthiest workplace in the country," thanks to a planned two-story gym, mile-long running track and other amenities for employees and the public. 

    The company, however, is downsizing as it moves. Reebok will bring about 700 workers to Boston, shedding roughly 300 employees, some of whom will be offered positions at other Adidas locations, including its North American headquarters in Portland, Oregon.