boston globe Note: bold by MAMEC

Devens thriving as old fort’s leaders put businesses at ease

Above, Fort Devens in its early military days and activity this month at the American Superconductor Corp. wire factory on the Devens site. The sprawling former Army base now is the workplace for 4, 252 people in a wide range of specialties. (Globe File Photo / 1921, Dina Rudick / Globe Staff Photo)

By Robert Gavin and Charlie Russo, Globe Correspondent  |  June 9, 2006

AYER -- When the Army closed Fort Devens in 1996, after 79 years as a military base, the state and nearby communities inherited abandoned buildings, contaminated land, and a big hole in the economy of this part of Central Massachusetts.

But state development officials and leaders from the three communities that Devens spans came up with an unusual plan to woo businesses. Now, the sprawling property has more than 80 companies with 4,200 workers -- double the base’s civilian employment in 1991, when its closing was first announced.

In just a decade, Devens, as it is now called, has gone from basket case to showcase, a transformation underscored last week by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s decision to build a $660 million manufacturing plant here.

"Devens is a new municipal form," said Jeffrey Simon, the first state official in charge of Devens’s redevelopment. "When state and local government get together, everyone puts politics aside. It happens faster."

Devens has several attributes that make it attractive to businesses: lots of open space, making it easy for companies to build new facilities or expand existing ones; its own utilities, often at cheaper rates than elsewhere in Massachusetts; and 90-day permitting, which guarantees businesses both speed and certainty in getting buildings reviewed.

Devens also hired its own commercial real estate broker, Lowell Peabody, senior vice president at NAI Hunneman, to scout for companies to locate there and to market its advantages.

Peabody said the permitting timetable, unusually fast for Massachusetts, is a powerful lure. Typically, Massachusetts communities and state agencies can take months, even years, scrutinizing building projects for size and impact, such as traffic, suggesting time-consuming modifications, and sometimes rejecting the proposals. Companies in the Bay State often complain that Massachusetts stifles job growth with hostile regulations and torturous reviews.

Now, business leaders in the state say Devens’s 90-day permitting process could be a model for other communities.

"For Massachusetts, Devens is the exception that proves the rule," said John Regan, vice president of government affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts. "For companies for whom time is money -- and that pretty much includes everybody -- the idea that you’ll get permitted within 90 days has got to be an advantage."

Moreover, Devens’s success shows that economic development requires long-term investments in transportation, utilities, and public services, said Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. "You have to start with the idea that economic development is not a one- or two-year proposition," he said.

Two key developments helped spark the revival of Devens: the state’s decision to pour money into property upgrades, and the Legislature’s creation of a unique governing structure in 1993, with the approval of the towns of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley.

The 1993 legislation established the 4,400-acre as a planned community, governed by the Devens Enterprise Commission, a panel of six local residents and six representatives from the region’s business community. The commission’s operations are supported by permitting fees and 2 percent of property taxes paid by Devens businesses and residents for municipal services.

Devens is close to Route 2 and interstates 190 and 495, and it’s an easy drive to Boston’s research institutions. A commercial rail line runs through the property, and it has its own electric, water, gas and sewer systems, originally built for the Army base.

MassDevelopment, a quasi-public agency, bought Devens from the Army in 1996 for $17 million. It has spent $144 million over the past 10 years to rebuild roads, demolish buildings, and expand the old fort’s systems. Devens has an aquifer to supply water.

The upgrades have given Devens the capacity to host industrial companies and offer cheap utility rates. Its electric rates, for example, are almost half those of other private utilities.

One company, Bionostics Inc., lopped 40 percent from its electricity costs after it relocated to Devens in 2001, said Kelly Winn, vice president of finance. The company, which makes liquids used in calibrating medical instruments, had outgrown its facilities in Acton and considered sites as far away as Lewiston, Maine, to expand.

Another key to Devens’s success, economic development specialists say, is that the enterprise commission serves as a single permitting panel, in contrast to the more common municipal structure under which three or four boards or agencies review projects.

"There’s no doubt that when businesses see they can be permitted and in the ground quickly, it’s a big incentive," said Robert Culver , MassDevelopment’s chief executive.

Bristol-Myers cited the speedy and straightforward permitting as a key factor in choosing Devens. The company wants to break ground in September, produce test batches of drugs in 2009, and begin commercial production in 2011.

Speed was also important to American Superconductor Corp., which in 2000 was looking to build a factory to produce its super-conducting wire. Devens offered low power costs and enough land for future expansion -- but it was the prompt permitting that sealed the deal for the Westborough company.

"You’re always looking to move fast," said Greg Yurek , American Superconductor’s chief executive, who estimated Devens’s permitting shaved six months from the project, compared to other communities that were considered. "That made it kind of easy for us when we saw that they were willing to do that fast-tracking."

Streamlining the permitting maze in Massachusetts is considered crucial to improving the state’s competitiveness, business and economic development officials said.

The system at Devens grew from an unusual situation, and it’s unlikely that other communities, where the review boards are established by law and tradition, would adopt the same permitting process. The Legislature, however, is considering a bill that would offer state grants to communities to set aside properties for development and guarantee a six-month approval process in these areas.

"If the state is serious about job growth, we can’t have companies stuck in permitting limbo," said Ranch Kimball, secretary of economic development. "We need a standardized, expedited process so communities can choose to create their own little Devens."

Robert Gavin can be reached at