FORT DEVENS, Mass. — The former army base Devens has been thrust into the spotlight as the place where alternative energy company Evergreen Solar built a manufacturing plant, then abruptly closed it, moving its operations to China. But Evergreen is only part of a larger story of rapid economic change in Devens.
Fifteen years ago, the army pulled out of Fort Devens, taking away 7,000 jobs, and leaving abandoned buildings and polluted land. The land was sold to a quasi-public agency now known as MassDevelopment. The idea was that the former base would be cleaned up and transformed into an economic hub.
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Meg Delorier, chief of staff at MassDevelopment, says, “I would never have imagined that 15 years later Devens would look likes it looks today.”
Delorier once lived at Fort Devens when her former husband was stationed there. “There were a lot of people who thought that we would be lucky to have warehousing and distribution facilities and that would be it; those would be the companies that would be attracted to Devens because there were large, flat parcels of land,” Delorier said.
But that’s not all that’s come to Devens. The base does have some warehousing and packaging companies. But it also has small businesses, and it’s been able to attract some prize life sciences and new energy technology companies like Evergreen Solar, American Superconductor, and Bristol Myers Squibb.
DeLorier says one of the most important advantages that Devens has is fast-track permitting. There is a single body known as the Devens Enterprise Commission which reviews all applications within 75 days of submission.
“It’s an expedited permitting process which is time and usually money for a company. That’s been one of the biggest attractions in Devens so far especially for the major employers,“DeLorier said.
But some nearby residents think there should be more time taken with these large projects. Frank Maxant is a selectman for the town of Ayer. He says pharmaceutical company Bristoll Myers Squibb was permitted too quickly – a record 49 days.
Maxant says he was concerned about “millions of gallons of biochemically active soup,” which he said would have been located right near the town’s only high-yield aquifer. “They boasted about their permitting process when they were through. Did they boast about prudent they were, how careful they were to protect everybody’s interest, protect the environment? They boasted about setting a speed record,” Maxant said.
Staff from the Devens Enterprise Commision said they hired an environmental planner to review the application. They defended the process and said it is possible to do a high quality plan review within that timeframe.
While economic development has moved quickly at Devens, the quest by residents to become an official town – remember, they’re still an army base -- is deadlocked.
The original reuse plan requires approval from the surrounding towns, and the residents in those towns don’t all agree. Frustrated with the stalemate, some Devens residents have petitioned the state legislature to bypass the towns and approve Devens as a municipality.
Rick Bernklow is one of those residents. He’s also a professional real estate appraiser. He says he wants Devens to become a town so they can govern themselves, but he would also like to keep the special permitting process.
“There’s nothing else in the commonwealth matches that,“ Bernklow sad. “It is a primary generator for economic growth here. I see people everywhere trying to get things permitted take a year, 2 years, 3 years. I think the state has put expedited permitting in, they’ve given extra money to do it, and the towns that keep it will be better off economically.”
The downturn in the economy has affected Devens just as it has in the surrounding towns. Even with incentives and expedited permitting, businesses are reluctant to start new projects. But MassDevelopment staff say the phones are starting to ring again, and they’re cautiously optimistic more companies will chose Devens to locate their business.
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