Insight: In Massachusetts, a redeveloped Army post has benefited from all sorts of advantages
by Mary Jo Shafer
Special to The Star
Aug 18, 2013 | 9200 views |  0 comments | 78 78 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, second from left, unveils a sign in 2000 to promote the $16 million redevelopment project of former military housing at the closed Fort Devens. Photo: The Associated Press
Former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, second from left, unveils a sign in 2000 to promote the $16 million redevelopment project of former military housing at the closed Fort Devens. Photo: The Associated Press
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DEVENS, Mass. — Devens is only about 38 miles from downtown Boston, about a 45- to 50-minute drive. Once known as Fort Devens, the 9,280-acre military installation served as the Army’s New England headquarters for 79 years before it closed in 1996. It is within relatively easy driving distance of other cities, such as Worcester, near Interstate 495 and easily accessible off Route 2.

That location “has been hugely helpful to Devens’ success,” says Mika Brewer, MassDevelopment’s vice president of sales, marketing and real estate in Devens. Like many real estate professionals, Brewer recognizes the importance of location, location location.

“Logistically, it’s a pretty easy place to get to,” says Brewer. “It’s easy to deliver products here.”

When Devens closed, more than 7,000 jobs were wiped out and Ayer, Shirley and Harvard, the central Massachusetts towns that Devens encompassed, were hit hard. The picture was similar in Anniston when Fort McClellan closed, but Devens’ redevelopment story has followed a different path since then, with the stewardship of MassDevelopment, a public-private partnership that has the means to manage and facilitate the process.

Today, Devens is a 4,400-acre multi-use community with 87 businesses employing 3,634 people, and more than 100 families call Devens home, according to a report from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Donahue Institute that was released in June. Planners say Devens benefits from fast-track permitting that makes Devens appealing to businesses, a highly skilled and educated workforce and an accessible location.

The 13 rail lines that travel through Devens were important in the fort’s founding and rail remains a crucial amenity today, says Brewer, because it attracts businesses looking for an efficient way to move freight in and out.

Location also appeals to those who work at Devens.

Many young professionals crave the excitement of the big city and want to live in Boston or Cambridge. Because Devens is a relatively easy commute, they can get back and forth quickly, whether on the highway or through the convenient commuter rail station in Ayer.

Growing families looking for a quiet and relatively rural environment — and more affordable real estate — are drawn to the quaint central Massachusetts towns around Devens or to the housing on the former base.

The presence of a highly educated and skilled workforce and proximity to universities and the biotech enclave of Cambridge have also been key recruiting pluses, Brewer says.

Life sciences have long been a strong industry in eastern Massachusetts, and businesses locating at Devens can draw from this labor infrastructure.

Mount Wachusett Community College, recognizing this need and the opportunity at Devens, has established a satellite campus there. It sits in a brick building across the street from pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb and includes a biotech-training component that is uniquely positioned to take advantage of its neighbors.

The Devens story also shows that many companies are attracted to a skilled and educated pool of possible employees, which highlights the importance of workforce development and education in economic-development efforts.

George Ramirez, MassDevelopment’s executive vice president of Devens operations, cites Bristol-Myers Squibb as a prime example of Devens’ success in attracting world-class businesses.

“BMS came to Devens as a result of a public-private partnership spanning a Republican and Democratic administration; expedited permitting; and the presence of a biotech cluster,” says Ramirez.

Brewer says Bristol-Myers Squibb searched the globe for its new site, including places like China and India, but eventually chose Devens.

Today, Bristol-Myers Squibb is Devens’ second-biggest employer, with 400 workers, according to the Boston Globe.

The company announced in April a $250 million expansion of its Devens facility that is slated to add 300 more jobs.

A Bristol-Myers Squibb spokesman declined to comment on its Devens operations but referred to an April press release that highlighted some of the reasons the global company came to Devens in 2009.

The $750 million investment in the Devens plant was the company’s largest capital investment in its history, the statement said.

The decision to expand the Devens facility reflects “both the initial success of Devens and some of the factors that first drew Bristol-Myers Squibb to the region,” the statement said. “These include the abundance of biotechnology knowledge, education and training in the Boston area, which has created a large and well-qualified workforce, as well as the inception of the state’s Life Sciences initiative.”

MegaWave is on the other side of the spectrum from Bristol-Myers Squibb – it’s one of the smaller companies at Devens, with seven employees.

But MegaWave was drawn to Devens for many of the same reasons the big businesses were, with an added incentive that Devens offers the kind environment they need to test their products. The company, housed in the former base mess hall, makes antennas for the military. It’s been in business for 19 years, previously based in Boylston, a town near Worcester.

They came to Devens five and a half years ago, says chairman Marshall Cross, who is also one of MegaWave’s founders.

They were lured to Devens by three main factors, he says: “We’d outgrown our facility, Devens offered cheaper rent and it was more convenient to where we test antennas.”

MegaWave had already been coming to Devens frequently in search of forests, fields and swamps – the kind of terrain that soldiers might encounter while fighting - to test their antennas, but “sometimes we want buildings around,” too, says Cross. Devens offers both.

At Devens they found an affordable, “airy, light” and large building with a large grass quadrangle where they could “test them right out the door,” says Cross. It’s also secure and private and MassDevelopment has been a responsive landlord, he says. That’s another important plus when trying to attract businesses.

Hollywood will even soon have a presence at Devens.

Work is under way on the future home of New England Studios. Buildings are going up and earth is being moved. When completed, it will be a movie production facility, poised to take advantage of the success Massachusetts has had in drawing filmmaking to the state.

New England Studios will be the first full-service movie-production facility in Massachusetts. “We’re hoping lots of people will be employed there,” says Brewer.

There have been many successes with Devens redevelopment, but there has also been at least one noteworthy failure. Solar panel manufacturer Evergreen Solar was supported with around $50 million in state aid, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It moved to a new plant at Devens five years ago. In 2011, the company filed for bankruptcy, shut its Devens plant, laid off 800 Massachusetts workers and announced it would shift production to China.

The Evergreen story has stirred a fair amount of debate in Massachusetts about the risks and benefits of offering businesses costly incentives to locate or expand here.

Governing Devens

Early on, planners recognized that the unique situation of Devens – encompassing three different towns – demanded an innovative approach to management.

Devens governance is rather complicated.

Ramirez functions as a kind of town manager for Devens, which is managed like a municipality.

For residents and businesses, Ramirez is the guy who is in charge of making sure the garbage is collected and the streets are plowed and patrolled.

Ramirez manages the day-to-day operations of Devens and “reaches out to boards” and elected officials in the three municipalities with a stake in Devens, he says.

MassDevelopment runs Devens as if it was a town, but it is not its own municipality. Residents who live at Devens vote in one of the surrounding towns, but get services from MassDevelopment and pay taxes to the agency. Children attend Harvard schools through a tuition contract with MassDevelopment.

MassDevelopment “owns the land and acts as the economic development office, public works department, fire, police, town council and utility,” explains Peter Lowitt, director of the Devens Enterprise Commission.

The Devens Enterprise Commission is the regulatory enforcement agency. It acts as a combined conservation commission, zoning and planning board, board of health, building inspector and is even in charge of liquor licenses.

It also helps recruit businesses and approve permits.

For both MassDevelopment and the Devens Enterprise Commission, “everything has to be consistent with the re-use plan and everything has to promote sustainability,” says Lowitt, and planners spend a fair amount of time communicating with their neighbors to see what their needs are.

A Joint Board of Selectmen advises MassDevelopment. Its members are selectmen from Ayer, Shirley and Harvard and residents of Devens. There’s also a Devens Committee, which functions as a kind of board of selectmen of Devens, although they have no real voting power.

Residents of the three towns and Devens must approve any changes to zoning or the master plan. They do this through a “super town meeting.”

Town meeting is a long-cherished, but often chaotic New England tradition. The residents of each town have their own priorities and self interests, while the residents of Devens have their own needs as well, which means politically it can get complicated. The residents of the three towns also hold much of the power because they outnumber Devens residents.

For fans of small government – the direct democracy tradition of town meeting aside – this could sound like a bureaucratic nightmare.

One Devens resident described it as a “political quagmire.”

And real disagreements exist on the future of Devens, especially when it comes to the residential component.

Looking to the future

Other challenges are created partly because of Devens’ redevelopment success.

“This amount of economic development” could present transportation issues, says Brewer. “We don’t want to jam up local roads” with trucking, he says.

He drives out to the old airfield, which is currently accessible only by traveling “off base” and through Ayer. On the way, one drives down some narrow roads and under a railroad bridge that a tractor trailer can’t fit under on a road that often is closed in the spring because of Nashua River flooding.

In order to develop the airfield, these transportation issues would need to be addressed, including the option of creating a new road through the base to access it.

That’s pretty far in the future – contamination from a parachute dry-cleaning facility needs to be addressed and right now the airfield has found a dynamic new life as a place state police can practice evasive driving techniques - but it is still something planners have thought about. The construction of Veterans Memorial Parkway through McClellan in Anniston highlights this sort of infrastructure challenge closer to home.

It also emphasizes the need for Devens to be a good neighbor in order for the three surrounding towns to continue to support efforts there. They need jobs. They appreciate amenities such as sporting facilities, open space and swimming holes, but they worry about a population explosion out at Devens and they don’t want industry to clog up and damage their roads.

Marshall Cross, of MegaWave, clearly appreciates the historic side of Devens. He likes it when visitors stop by and say, “I was stationed here once,” or tell him that they ate in MegaWave’s building that was once the mess hall. They feel at home, he says, it breaks tension and helps make Devens memorable.

That history is important, he says, especially for the many in New England who passed through Devens. His father was inducted here in World War II. Most families in New England have some connection to Devens.

Fifty years ago, Cross attended ROTC summer camp at Devens. Cross’ Devens memories of another time are still vivid.

“I remember the parade field,” he says. “Every Saturday morning you’d have to go and get dressed up, put on your dress uniform and march down to the parade field.” They’d drill there on Saturdays and head out to the rifle ranges during the week.

Today, those ranges are still in use by the Army Reserve and the parade grounds welcome a new generation of youngsters. Soccer balls roll where soldiers used to stand. Bugles no longer start and end the days here, but the Army’s long history is not forgotten and in many ways it still lingers at every turn.

Meanwhile, new stories are being written at Devens. Where once thousands readied to fight the nation’s wars, hundreds of workers turn their hands to diverse work and a different kind of battle is ongoing. It is the fight for the future of this pocket of Massachusetts and the people that call it home. They need jobs, tax revenue, hope and stability. They never wanted to see Devens die. These towns lived and died with Devens.

Now they are trying to carve out a new way and looking toward the future.

This fight is a familiar one for any town or city that has lost its main employer, and for many military towns it’s a specter that can pop up whenever it is Base Realignment and Closure time.

Devens, so far, does show that there is a way forward. It is not an easy or simple road, and it takes collaboration between competing interests. It calls for innovation, a unifying vision and support from local, state and federal parties.

Ramirez offers these practical tips to anyone in a similar situation:

“Emphasize planning, funding, cleanup and infrastructure build-out at the beginning of a project to capitalize on economic opportunities that could arise.”

These are lessons Anniston could benefit from.

Mary Jo Shafer is a former Anniston Star assistant metro editor who now works as a journalist and educator in her native Massachusetts. She can be reached at mjshafer67@gmail.com.

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