Devens reps meet with school officials, but signs point to the school staying within city limits

LOWELL -- A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. In terms of scale, it is to a meter what a marble is to the planet Earth. Researchers working with carbon molecules often use nanotechnology as small as an eighth of a nanometer.

So imagine how many of those molecules can be packed into the 400,000 square foot vacant hulking Vicksburg Square buildings on Devens.

The allure of an already constructed building was part of the pitch brought to UMass Lowell last Wednesday, as Ayer officials traveled to city to lobby the school's leaders to consider constructing a proposed nanotechnology research center in a portion of the Vicksburg Square complex.

The nano question was apparently answered with a "no," at least for now.

At a meeting held at the Lowell college on Jan. 6, Dr. Jacqueline Moloney, the college's Associate Chancellor, met with a carload of Ayer officials as well as Ed Starzec, representing MassDevelopment -- the present owner of the quadrangle and its outbuildings.

Starzec has previously offered up the use of the buildings to UMass for $1 a year, according to former Ayer Selectmen Pauline Hamel and Frank Maxant. The two attended the summit with present Ayer selectman Jim Fay and Town Administrator Shaun Suhoski.

But the deal was to no avail, Maxant said. The discussion was frank, cordial, productive and informative, but the tone leaned towards the negative on using Devens' properties.


He said Moloney cited the school's preference for razing a building on their city campus to build a new, 80,000 square-foot facility from scratch. Location may play a role, too, Maxant said. He said UMass is collaborating with Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire on the project. A new facility in Lowell would be closer to those two schools than one in Devens.

Still, the meeting concluded with a pledge to follow up with another meeting directly with UMass-Lowell Chancellor, and former area congressman, Martin Meehan, according to Maxant and Hamel. Specific meeting plans are to be determined.

Maxant contends the 20-acre parcel on Devens, straddling the historic Ayer-Harvard town line, is already zoned for innovation and technology uses and would permit UMass to come in as an institutional entity and convert the space into part-research and part-dormitory space. Instead of Lowell-area demolition followed by ground-up construction, Maxant says a Devens nanotechnology center could be "installing equipment in Vicksburg Square by March."

But Maxant says even if the answer is "no", they hope to have "sowed a seed that may give them pause to look again at their plans for so much money and time required" to build anew at Lowell.

Maxant is also penning a letter to UMass-system president Jack Wilson, asking for implementation of "broader based thinking." Maxant says that with access to the commuter rail, a Devens branch for UMass is a natural fit. The trains can provide links to other significant technology schools, said Maxant, like Waltham's Brandeis University, Worcester's WPI and UMass Medical School, Cambridge's MIT and Harvard and Boston's Tufts, Boston University and Boston College.

Meehan's been very clear on his intention on redeveloping Lowell, said Maxant, so he hopes to appeal to Wilson directly. "It would seem somebody in Wilson's position would be inclined to say 'Hey, let's look at this very seriously,'" he said.

Maxant also blasted MassDevelopment's handling of an earlier opportunity to approach UMass on the concept. "MassDevelopment is completely missing the point of marketing this," he said. "They're trying to get someone to come in and take the whole package. They just don't get it."

"The problem with MassDevelopment is that the process may have started too late," Hamel said. "Here they are talking about construction and acquiring property in Lowell and here it all is in Devens." She said Maloney referenced the lack of dorm space that still plagues the school.

"Is it too late?" said Hamel, "We're going to find out."