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Massachusetts readies for growth

February 15, 2017 : MassLive, by Jay Ash and Marty Jones

Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." Massachusetts is fortunate to have strong civic leadership, robust state-municipal government ties, and an unrivaled innovation economy. Programs like MassWorks, the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, and the Transformative Development Initiative are critical tools that spur lasting economic growth. The Baker-Polito Administration and MassDevelopment now have another arrow in the Commonwealth's economic development quiver: the Site Readiness Fund.

The Site Readiness Fund came from lessons learned as a result of a confidential site search a Kendall Square biotech company undertook for its new facility. In response, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development and MassDevelopment staff created a list of sites for the company, which needed a large – 50 acres or more – turnkey parcel with appropriate zoning and heavy-duty infrastructure. Unfortunately, this process resulted in a list with an unacceptably small number of appropriate properties.

The company ultimately built its new facility overseas, and this exercise served as an important call to action. The Commonwealth can do much more to boost its inventory of large, well-located, shovel-ready sites, creating opportunities for businesses to locate and grow all over Massachusetts. The Site Readiness Fund will help accomplish this goal by providing vital resources to municipalities, developers, and community development corporations.

Created by the 2016 economic development bill and administered by MassDevelopment, the Fund will help eradicate obstacles to development of key parcels in a manner similar to how other Commonwealth programs have operated. For example, the failure to redevelop Chicopee's Uniroyal and Facemate properties stemmed from the understandable inability of developers to see past the complex's crumbling buildings and remediation needs. The city used $2 million in brownfields funds to leverage $15 million in private investment for a new senior center, thereby transforming an eyesore into an attractive asset for Chicopee.

The Transformative Development Initiative also tackles some of the Commonwealth's most complex "but-for" challenges. Massachusetts Gateway Cities have vast unlocked potential, yet each has regional challenges that may prevent outsiders from seeing that opportunity. MassDevelopment's focus on projects like Stearns Square in Springfield, where a formerly blighted block is slated to become a lively new dining quarter with the help of TDI investments and local leadership, is awakening developers to possibilities in Gateway Cities.

The Commonwealth has a track record of developing and deploying tools to break down barriers to economic development. The Site Readiness Fund takes this legacy an additional step by supporting projects earlier in their planning process with a full suite of services. In its first year, the Fund will provide developers, municipalities, and other public-sector groups with strategic consulting and technical assistance services like planning, engineering, traffic studies, and marketing. MassDevelopment will also begin accepting pre-applications in February from both public and private entities to fund future site-readiness activities such as site acquisition, site assembly, demolition, environmental remediation, site preparation, and site improvements. The Commonwealth developed these guidelines with information from four regional workshops and a MassDevelopment webinar, which more than 180 representatives from municipalities, regional planning/economic development organizations, landowners, and industry groups attended. Visit MassDevelopment's site readiness website to watch the webinar and to access more information about the program's guidelines, application materials, and timeline.

In Massachusetts, where others might see limitations, we see opportunities. We do not shy away from the chance to turn an abandoned, obsolete facility into a clean, actively-used property, or to work directly with municipalities to fix zoning issues that might leave a potentially profitable block of land unused. Failing to confront these challenges might mean passing up the chance to bring the next General Electric or Bristol-Myers Squibb to the Commonwealth. The Site Readiness Fund offers numerous possibilities for lasting economic growth and vitality in each of Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns, thanks to what they can do, with what they have, where they are. 

Jay Ash is housing and economic development secretary and Marty Jones is president and CEO of MassDevelopment.