Get Devens a proper workforce
November 13, 2017 : Worcester Business Journal, Editorial
Devens has been a resounding economic success since the former military base was transformed into the iconic MassDevelopment location less than 20 years ago. In the late 1990s, when Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voted to give the site to the state agency, few could have predicted the 100-year-old facility would be home to the likes of a $1-billion Bristol-Myers Squibb biologics development, a 114,000-square-foot hydroponic farm and dozens of other good-sized tenants.
Much of the original promise of that large swath of development-ready land has been met. Yet, some pieces are still missing, and the further development of Devens will depend on getting those issues right. Can Devens fulfill its promise as a place where Boston and Cambridge technological firms want to expand their manufacturing capabilities in a less costly, but still easily accessible location?
Today, Devens is largely a drive-in, drive-out community. Currently Devens houses about 450 residents, mostly in units formerly used by military families. Certainly Harvard, Ayer, Shirley and other surrounding towns offer nearby housing for employees, but most workers still need a car to get to the office, and the size of the nearby workforce is limited.
What Devens needs is a combination of more housing for its workforce and better transportation options.
MassDevelopment is on the right track with construction of a new 124-unit residential community – Emerson Green – in Devens, and a 20-unit apartment complex and a 58-unit senior housing development are in the planning stages. If Devens is going to promote itself as a less costly manufacturing and R&D capital – where companies don't necessarily move their headquarters but will open expansive production facilities – there will need to be more affordable places for those employees to live, and easier ways for them to access transportation to and from Devens.
In response to that need, MassDevelopment started a shuttle service in April from Fitchburg and Leominster, but more needs to be done. Devens needs better public transit access towards the Greater Boston area, either through existing nearby commuter rail stations or more bus routes. The community's location off of Route 2 and close proximity to Route 495 does make for easy driving accessibility, and it's certainly a less punishing commute than for those who have to travel the Mass Pike and Route 128 on a daily basis.
Yet to expand facilities for manufacturers who rely on a high-volume, lower-skilled workforce for production, the cost and inconvenience barriers in getting to Devens needs to be lowered significantly.
Nearly all of Central Massachusetts can lay claim as a more affordable business locale than to our east. We've got a plethora of developable land, a highly trained and educated workforce and plenty of institutes of higher learning all at a much lower cost. With its ready sites and streamlined permitting process, Devens could really become the embodiment of this Central Massachusetts mantra.
First formed during World War I a hundred years ago, the Devens community has made tremendous progress reinventing itself over the last 20 years. With the right strategy, the town can take it to the next level, and bring significant benefit to the entire region.