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After 100 years, Devens has become a technology hub

November 13, 2017 : Worcester Business Journal, by Grant Welker

The future was not promising for Fort Devens just over two decades ago when the military base was ordered closed along with others across the country. The property was filled with buildings suddenly of no use, standing on contaminated land.

But exactly a century after the military base opened, Fort Devens has blossomed into a regional economic hub with more than 6 million square feet of space and more than 5,000 workers. It has drawn distribution and technology companies to a site close to population centers while offering acres of open land.

"Devens checked all the boxes," said Paul Sellew, the owner of Little Leaf Farms, a hydroponic grower of leafy greens that moved in last year and is already working to nearly double its space.

Fort Devens opened during World War I and served local military operations and training until closing in 1996. The three towns that made up the base – Ayer, Harvard and Shirley – voted to give the site to MassDevelopment, the state's economic development arm, to redevelop it as a business hub once the fort closed and 7,000 jobs were eliminated.

MassDevelopment controls the Devens site and collects taxes from property owners.

"It is the iconic development for MassDevelopment," said Lauren Liss, the agency's president and CEO.

An innovation hub

From the start, planners had high ambitions for New England's largest former military base. A 1994 plan called for innovation and technology companies to help create 35,000 jobs within four decades.

But Devens's success was never a sure thing.

Nearly $200 million in state funds have been spent transforming the site, including removing hazardous soil and taking down hundreds of barracks. Devens has overcome the loss of a 400-employee Gillette factory in 2010 and the high-profile closure of the state-backed Evergreen Solar in 2012.

One major factor in Devens' success has been a fast permitting process – just 75 days, according to MassDevelopment. Potential businesses don't need to go through a series of municipal boards, said Thatcher Kezer, the senior vice president of Devens operations for MassDevelopment.

"There's one single commission that represents all those functions," Kezer said.

Multi-million-dollar private investments

Devens has built a roster of tenants to make almost any municipality in the area envious.

Bristol-Myers Squibb opened in Devens in 2009 as the company's first major facility in Massachusetts after receiving construction permits in just 49 days. The $750-million project was the company's largest capital investment in its history at the time.

The facility, which initially focused on commercial manufacturing, was expanded last year in a $280-million project to include biologics development and clinical trial manufacturing. Bristol-Myers Squibb now has 715 workers at the 89-acre site.

Nypro, a Clinton-based medical device contract manufacturer, moved into roughly 200,000 square feet at the former Evergreen Solar building in 2014. Up to 200 workers create diagnostics and pharmaceutical devices in clean rooms spread across half of the building.

The building is close to the Nypro headquarters, where the company had outgrown its manufacturing space, and is a few minutes from Mount Wachusett Community College's Devens satellite space, where Nypro is a partner for engineering programs, Witkowski said.

"Devens was an ideal location," said Jon Witkowski, Nypro's general manager.

Little Leaf Farms built a 114,000-square-foot hydroponic farming facility in 2016 it is already nearly doubling. The company was looking of affordable utility prices and easy access to Boston and Worcester, said Sellew, the owner.

Laddawn, a maker of packaging products, moved into the old Devens library, wanting to be a little closer to the Boston area's labor force from its first headquarters in Sterling. A renovation and expansion has included a rock climbing wall, yoga space and bicycles for rent for the office's 110 employees.

"Devens has been a terrific partner for us," said Owen Richardson, Laddawn's vice president of marketing and sales.

Adding more space

In all, Devens has more than 100 businesses, and its vacancy rate is 5 percent, according to the Devens Enterprise Commission, which acts as the site's regulatory and permitting body.

Devens has surpassed 6 million square feet, with more on the way.

Integra, a maker of biopharmaceutical products, is nearing completion on a doubling of its space, and Quiet Logistics, an online ordering and fulfillment company, moved from Andover in 2011 into the 411,000-square-foot space Gillette left. The company was attracted to Devens for its location between larger workforces in Worcester, Lowell and Fitchburg, and close distance among several airports, said Brian Lemerise, the Quiet Logistics president.

Biotechnology is a focus in Devens' growth. Last fall, Devens won approval from voters in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley to rezone 33 acres to help accommodate a biotech building of up to 500,000 square feet.

MassDevelopment sees enough potential at the site next to Quiet Logistics, which has direct rail access, that it has undertaken a 429,000-square-foot expansion without any tenants lined up.

Creating a Devens workforce

To help more area workers get to Devens, a shuttle service was started in April from Fitchburg and Leominster. In the first week of operation in April, there were only 24 riders. That more than tripled by this fall.

Only about 450 people live in Devens now, but that number will rise with a new 124-unit residential community called Emerson Green. So far, 17 homes have been built in a tightly-knit neighborhood recalling old-fashioned town centers.

Two 20-unit apartment buildings and a 58-unit senior housing development are planned.

A potential exists for up to about 400 housing units in all.

An albatross

The 7-square-mile Devens site is at 60 percent of its full capacity, said Kezer. More than a dozen sites are available for development, and next year, clean technology company AMSC will vacate its 355,000-square-foot building. (Some parts of the site, particularly south of Route 2, are still used by the Army Reserve or Massachusetts National Guard.)

The site's open space is popular with workers looking for a different type of experience on a lunch break than they'd get outside any office inside Route 128. More than 1,400 acres in Devens are protected open space, and Devens budgets annually for planting more streetside trees to improve aesthetics.

One site in particular, a group of rundown brick buildings known as Vicksburg Square, has been eyed for redevelopment for years. Attempts to rezone the area from commercial to residential have run into opposition from voters.

Tom Kinch, the Devens Advisory Committee chairman, called Vicksburg Square an albatross.

"Something has to be done with it," he said at an annual MassDevelopment meeting in Devens in October. "It's the symbol of Devens."