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Hope Floats in Devens

August 21, 2011 : The Lowell Sun, by Hiroko Sato

DEVENS – Ask George Ramirez if he sees any sign of economic recovery in the former Army fort community, and he will point to the soon-to-be-open Hilton Garden Inn that rises four stories high on Devens Common.

The shutdown of Evergreen Solar Inc.’s giant manufacturing plant in March was a big blow, admits Ramirez, executive vice president of Devens Operations for MassDevelopment, which that acts as the municipal authority. Eight hundred jobs disappeared as Evergreen, once a rising star, stopped domestic solar-panel production amid global price competition. News of Evergreen’s filing for bankruptcy protection last week came at about the same time another Devens-based company, American Superconductor Corp., revealed that it had laid off 150 workers, or 30 percent of its global workforce, since March 31.

Just up the road, though, MJM Development, LLC, of Andover is planning to build a $104 million movie studio on 28 acres it’s expected to buy from MassDevelopment. The project is expected to generate 300 jobs during its first phase, according to MassDevelopment.

Jobs are also returning to the former Gillette Co. packaging plant on Saratoga Boulevard. Quiet Logistics, which distributes products for e-tailers, recently agreed to lease 200,000 square feet there and eventually bring in about 300 workers.

The economic drawbacks didn’t stop Hilton or Devens Development, LLC, a Westford developer for the local hotel, from building the Garden Inn, Ramirez said. “Obviously, you don’t go out and build a hotel unless you think you can fill it,” Ramirez said. “It’s a confirmation to us that people are coming to Devens whether it’s to do business or to attend a conference.”

The anticipated opening of the 120-room hotel in a little over a month may also signal some improvements in loan availability in general, said Peter Lowitt, director of the Devens Enterprise Commission, which acts as Devens’ permitting agency. Difficulty in accessing funds was holding up some aspects of the hotel’s construction last year, but the developer has since found other ways to finance the project, Lowitt said.

With all things considered, Devens is doing “reasonably well,” said Bill Marshall, CEO of North Middlesex Savings Bank and president of DEC. That’s because Devens is closely located to major highways, such as Interstate 495 and Route 2, in addition to the reasonable commercial tax rate of $15.89 per $1,000 valuation, Ramirez said. The expedited permitting process that allows developers to receive all needed permits within 75 days through a single agency, DEC, is also attractive, he added.

But the true “winning formula” is to bring “sustainable growth” for “sustainable jobs” just as stated in the Devens Reuse Plan that the towns of Ayer, Shirley and Harvard adopted in 1994, said Ayer Selectman James Fay. Fay, who serves on the Devens Joint Boards of Selectmen, which is comprised of representatives from all three towns, believes the movie studio fits the definition of “sustainable” jobs – something that warehouses and other industrial development in Devens’ early years didn’t have.

“They need to keep doing (development) like that where you produce something that’s consumable,” Fay said.

The three towns have had a goal for Devens to recover all of the 7,000 to 8,000 jobs lost in the Army base closure in 1996 through industrial and commercial developments, Fay said. In 2005 and 2006, Devens had just about 3,000 private-sector jobs, which increased to more than 3,100 in the following two years, according to MassDevelopment. There is no survey conducted that shows the current statistics, but the agency estimates there are about 3,500 private-sector jobs now.

The Devens Industrial Park off Barnum Road has 900,000 square feet of privately-owned space that is available for lease or sale in three existing buildings as well as a 9-acre lot that MassDevelopment has up for sale. Devens Innovation and Technology Park has 60,000 square feet of for-lease space, most of which is privately owned, and 37 acres of for-sale land owned by MassDevelopment.

The vacancy rate for industrial properties in Devens increased over the past three years, as in many other communities, said Kelsey Abbruzzese, spokeswoman for MassDevelopment. But Quiet Logistics and other companies recently snapped up a total of 335,000 square feet by moving their facilities in Devens. And, the movie studio could produce as many as 800 to 1,000 jobs in the long run if it proves successful, according to MassDevelopment.

Lowitt said tight credit and a lack of confidence in the economy continue to keep corporations from acting on their business expansion plans.

“Many of them have lots of capital on hand. They are just waiting for the right opportunities to deploy it,” Lowitt said.

Asked by The Sun if it’s realistic to count on industrial development for economic growth when manufacturing jobs continue to move overseas, Marshall said he believes those jobs will never completely disappear.

“There is room for some industrial expansion,” Marshall said. “You need some basic manufacturing facilities to produce products.”

© Copyright 2011 The Lowell Sun.