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MassDevelopment CEO Speaks to Local Business People

September 28, 2011 : Nashoba Publishing, by Mary E. Arata

DEVENS – It was almost a year and a half since George Ramirez was hired by MassDevelopment to become its new Executive Vice President for Devens Operations. Shortly after his arrival, Ramirez organized a Devens-centric, monthly open discussion group geared for Devens businesses and institutions dubbed the “Kitchen Cabinet.”

The group grew to include representatives from the Devens business community, both big and small. The players included retail store owners located in Devens Commons to the bigger fish like representatives from Bristol-Myers Squibb. Institutional players from Mt. Wachusett Community College, the Army Reserve and federal prison participated as well.

On Wednesday, Ramirez passed the keys to the cabinet to the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce, which will now play host to the monthly Devens Business Roundtable discussions. Ramirez said, “I’m looking at this as a success; the fact that we started the conversation about how we can be successful together.”

Ramirez said MassDevelopment will still participate closely in the discussions. However, Ramirez said the old format became “private conversations with George but the intent was to grow the conversations.”

Ramirez introduced the guest speaker who is also his boss – MassDevelopment CEO and President Marty Jones who came aboard the quasi-public state agency in April.

Prior to MassDevelopment, Jones most recently served as president of the Boston-based development, building and property management company Corcoran Jennison. In addition to other private sector development posts, Jones also served within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in its Washington, D.C. and Boston offices.

Collaboration is a hallmark of successful management, Jones said. “None of us gets anything done unless we do it as a team. Your businesses are probably not operating in a silo anymore.”

Jones said she was impressed to find Devens will soon have two hotels. “There are not many hotels under construction anywhere in America.” Developer Robert Walker said his Hilton Garden Inn project, located across Devens Common from the Springhill by Marriott he also built, will be complete in a month’s time.

Looking ahead, Jones said she’s “optimistic” about a proposed television and film studio locating on Devens. She said the company, MJM Development LLC of Andover, appears “strong” and that it “seems to have their financing together” and has charted a “reasoned approach” with a phased development.

Jones said a land agreement with MJM Development is in the works. Following due diligence research, the plan is for construction in 2012. “I’m sure everyone here would love to see everyone here coming in and out both for the pizzazz but also for the jobs,” said Jones.

“When I’m out in the state ‘talking Devens’ and I tell them there are two hotels here and more than three million square feet built, people are very surprised,” said Jones.

On the residential front, Jones said there are 20 new homes in the works: eight zero energy homes under construction on Adams Circle, and a just-approved 12-unit townhouse development nearby. She said both projects will be showcased at an Oct. 13 seminar sponsored by MassDevelopment to show that “even in New England, we can build houses that don’t have huge demands for external energy.”

MassDevelopment manages the 4,400 acres of the decommissioned former Fort Devens Army base, also known as the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone (DREZ). The agency does not manage the remaining 5,000 acres of the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area where Fort Devens continues on as a U.S. Army facility.

Still Jones hoped the business roundtable might also help field a broad-based community support group for the ongoing Fort Devens operation. Jones said that she’s been meeting with the Lieutenant Governor’s office regarding “future rounds of BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] closings” but quickly added there’s “nothing on the immediate horizon.”

Jones said MassDevelopment also hopes to reach out to the Army to help strengthen its installation “so they’re not as vulnerable to closure.”

Jones then opened the floor to questions.

“I continue to beat the same drum – housing, housing, housing,” said Walker. The next major housing initiative being contemplated is a 246-unit apartment conversion of the vacant Vicksburg Square, which requires tri-town approval from Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voters to rezone the complex for residential use. To proceed, voters much also approve a bump-up over the current 282-unit housing cap for the DREZ.

“And Devens needs to become its own community,” added Walker. “It’s a necessity at this point. Political aspects aside, someone needs to grab the bull by the horns.”

Following the 1996 Fort Devens base closure, the legislature set a 40-year window for MassDevelopment’s care and custody of the DREZ through 2033 unless and until an alternative governance structure is mutually agreed upon by the three towns – or the legislature changes course.

“I’m still in the learning curve mode and with regard to Devens in particular,” said Jones. “I’m sure there’ll be discussions in the year to come.”

Mount Wachusett Community College Devens campus Director Julie Crowley said there’s a need for increased signage to direct visitors to Devens locations and identify where tenants are located within larger subdivided buildings. Heads nodded.

“American Superconductor allowed us a sign that says “take a left,” said Crowley. “Students come in and say ‘we can’t find you.’”

And while Devens, in some form or another, has long been on the map, GPS and computer-based navigation confuse travelers headed to Devens destinations. The group murmured in agreement that it’s a collective problem.

Ramirez said MassDevelopment’s engineering division is working on the problem and would brief the business leaders on their progress.

“Access to public transportation remains a hot topic for us,” said Daniel Noberini, Associate Director of Environment, Health & Safety for Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). “Our applicant pool is the biotechnology cluster in Cambridge.” He said the outbound train doesn’t arrive back in Ayer until about 9:30 a.m. – well after the start of the workday.

Noberini also said that BMS was working with Evergreen Solar on Barnum Road to identify commuters along the Routes 128 and 495 highway belts to shuttle employees to Devens. “It’s amazing where we draw employees from – Wareham to just past Manchester, New Hampshire. We do have some carpooling options we’ve assembled. We were working with Evergreen on a commuter lot in Franklin or Bellingham where they drew from. Unfortunately, with their loss, we’ve worked internally.”

Noberini referenced what’s known as the reverse commute, according to Devens Enterprise Commission Administrative Director Peter Lowitt. Lowitt facilitates a working group meeting on Devens of communities along the Fitchburg Commuter Rail line. Double tracking, now underway between South Acton and Ayer, will help beef up rail capacity to run earlier trains with earlier arrival times for the outbound commute.

“The goal is to have the one hour, 29-minute commute from Leominster to Porter Square [in Cambridge] shaved down to an hour,” said Lowitt. Though it’s been talked about since 2000, Lowitt said progress is afoot and the shorter inbound commute times should be realized in 2013.

Lowitt acknowledge too the need for a shuttle service for employees arriving on Devens via train at the existing downtown Ayer commuter rail platform. With a train turn around planned in western Fitchburg, the hope is to run an outbound train for arrivals in the 7-8 a.m. timeframe every workday.

Jones asked if the “T” (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) has “committed to doing that once hard improvements are done?”

“We have them to our meetings,” said Lowitt. “They said they’d do that but I think it’s going to need a little bit of pressure when we actually put the pedal to the metal.”

Alene Reich, Executive Director of Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area, suggested the reverse commute is also vital to bring Boston bound tourists out to Central Massachusetts. “How do you capture those people before they go home?”

© Copyright 2011 Nashoba Publishing.