April 29, 2013

Devens Succeeds In Reinvention

Any time the federal government announces it's looking to close a military base or two to rein in defense spending, a Congressman is bound to step it up into rhetorical overdrive in an effort to preserve the status quo, and the base jobs that go with it. That's only natural, given the inherent human fear of and resistance to change, and most politicians' zeal for the easy headline.

In 1996, when Fort Devens officially closed, and switched its mission to an Army Reserves and National Guard training center, it ended nearly 80 years as the Army's New England base of operations. More importantly at the time, it took thousands of jobs with it.

Fast-forward 17 years, and the new community of Devens has emerged as a haven for business development in the region. That was underscored earlier this month when pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, which moved into Devens in 2009, announced a $250-million expansion plan that will create a large-scale biologics manufacturing facility and add 350 jobs, nearly doubling its current Devens workforce.

And a number of other companies have discovered the attraction of Devens. One of them is multinational manufacturer Saint-Gobain, which is investing $30 million in a new wafer-manufacturing plant inside the building that housed the former Evergreen Solar plant and will bring in 90 jobs with it. Meanwhile, Worcester-based contract engineering firm Coghlin Cos. opened a site in Devens this month and will add 75 jobs there. And New England Film Studios is scheduled to open later this year, providing Devens with a notable stake in the entertainment industry.

In a report released last summer, the UMass Donahue Institute cited these figures in Deven's redevelopment (as of 2010):

• Total employment by Devens-based firms: 3,208;

• Additional jobs in Massachusetts supported through secondary spending: 2,618;

• Contribution to the Massachusetts economy: $1.45 billion; and

• Percentage of employees in private-sector jobs: 67 percent.

After the base closed, Devens had a geographical advantage in its effort to reinvent itself: Its location — close to the junction of Route 2 and Interstate 495, makes commuting relatively easy to and from several major population areas, such as Worcester, Fitchburg, Leominster and along I-495.

With the blessing of voters in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley, MassDevelopment, the quasi-public economic development and real estate agency, took over and has built a solid record of business development. As of 2010, according to the Donahue report, 95 businesses had set up shop in Devens, generating average annual salaries of close to $69,000. In spite of losing some of the $10 million it gave to Evergreen Solar, before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2011, MassDevelopment has built a commendable track record in Devens and has offered a leading-edge example of how a community — aided by the state —can rebound from a major setback, reinvent itself and thrive.

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