Military Metamorphosis

When the federal government decided to close Fort Devens in 1991, it opened a $350 million hole in the Massachusetts economy. The Army base was the state’s second largest employer, supporting 9,000 military, civilian and community jobs. The sprawling 9,300-acre complex west of Route 495 served as the economic backbone for the surrounding towns of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. As troops relocated to other parts of the country and civilians looked for new postings, residents worried about what, if anything, would fill the void.

Today the region is arming itself for a new kind of economy, and military officials point to Devens as a model of redevelopment success. An unusual partnership of state and local officials is slowly turning over much of the land for non-military uses — technological research, manufacturing, warehouse space, recreation, even one of the state’s charter schools. More than 2,200 new jobs have been created so far and more are on the way.

To promote growth on the site, the tiny towns of Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley made special arrangements to cede control of the land to the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency. The quasi-public state economic development agency bought almost half of the property — 4,400 acres — from the federal government and assumed responsibility for its maintenance and development, according to the towns’ specifications. The Army retained control of the remaining 4,900 acres for a Reserves training facility.

The Legislature later designated the portion owned by MassDevelopment as an “economic target area,” or “enterprise zone,” called simply “Devens,” allowing businesses to apply for special tax credits and abatements to lure them to the land. MassDevelopment is now marketing part of the property as a “technology and innovation park,” with an international campaign targeting firms that specialize in bio-technology, plastics, software, pharmaceuticals, and other so-called “clean” industries. The Legislature also agreed to borrow $200 million to give to MassDevelopment for new roads, utilities, sewers and other infrastructure needs. In all, about 1,600 acres has been reserved for possible commercial development, with the remaining 2,800 acres set aside for recreational uses and open space, including a wildlife refuge.

Michael P. Hogan, the executive director of MassDevelopment, says the agency is streamlining the permitting process for companies hoping to relocate at Devens. Officials promise a 75-day maximum turnaround on all building, zoning, health and other permit applications. The permits, typically handled by separate town departments, are all considered together at Devens by a single entity, the Devens Enterprise Commission, made up primarily of local officials. “Other places in New England have a year, or a year-and-a-half” waiting time, Hogan says. “But if you have a new product, you can’t afford to be waiting for a year to begin construction.”

The plan seems to be working. MassDevelopment officials say they have lined up at least 1,120 full-time jobs from the private sector and another 1,200 from the federal government. There were 33 private projects underway or completed late last year, including a 250,000-square-foot production, research and development center to be leased by Gillette, the maker of razors and shaving cream. The facility will create 175 jobs. Performance Corrugated, a part of Seward Packaging Company, recently built a 132,000-square-foot corrugated paper manufacturing facility, which will provide 100 new jobs. The federal projects include a $72 million federal prison hospital and a $20 million Department of Labor center for educational and vocational training for disadvantaged youths from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In November, MassDevelopment was considering proposals for another 1.1 million square feet of construction.

Devens is not expected to be self-supporting until 2006, at which point revenues from user fees, sales, leases and other sources are supposed to cover the costs of maintaining, marketing and running the property. But Paul Dempsey, director of Base Closure and Community Reinvestment at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office for Economic Adjustment, said the progress to date already shows base redevelopment can work. “If you use the metric of success as the replacement of jobs, the Devens redevelopment is definitely a model,” Dempsey said.

Forty-five miles southeast of Devens, residents of Weymouth, Rockland and Abington are coping with the more recent closure of the South Weymouth Naval Air Station in September. The 1,400-acre facility had contributed about $56 million a year to the economy. While the management details are still being worked out, a reuse plan calls for a mix of residential, commercial and industrial development. The first major proposal came from the Mills Corp., which wants to build a $220 million mega-mall of outlet stores, providing about 3,000 full-time jobs.

Meet the Author
The demise of Fort Devens and South Weymouth leaves one major military installation in Massachusetts – Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford – and three smaller National Guard facilities – Camp Curtis Guild in Wakefield, and Camp Edwards and Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. But more cuts could be coming. A Pentagon-backed study last fall recommended two more rounds of military base closures.

Amanda Beck is a former CommonWealth editorial intern.