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Aboard until successor located

By Mary E. Arata

BOSTON — After a seven-year run, Robert Culver will soon be out as president and CEO of MassDevelopment, the quasi-public agency that runs Devens.

A MassDevelopment press release issued Wednesday states that Culver was resigning the $300,000 a year post and would leave when a successor is found.

MassDevelopment board chairman Gregory Bialecki, Patrick’s secretary of housing and economic development, said, “I would like to thank Bob for his unwavering dedication to MassDevelopment and the Commonwealt. His passion for rebuilding communities and providing economic opportunities throughout Massachusetts has made an indelible mark on this state.”

“Leading the MassDevelopment team has been an honor and a rare privilege,” said Culver in the same press release. “I thank the Governor for the opportunity to serve.”

In response to a request to speak with Culver directly, MassDevelopment Communications Director Kelsey Abbruzzese said the press release would be Culver’s statement on the mater.

Culver was appointed president and CEO in 2004 and charged with, among other projects, the continued build-out of the 4,400-acre Devens redevelopment project. Plaudits poured in for landing Bristol-Myers Squibb on Devens, as well as locating Evergreen Solar on Barnum Road, a much-touted example of “green jobs” sprouting in Massachusetts during the Patrick Administration. MassDevelopment states the two companies drew a combined 1,000 skilled workers to Devens.

But the Marlborough-based solar panel manufacturer also drew heat for taking millions in state dollars and soon after announcing the shift of some Devens jobs to China. The plant was also the subject of a two-year noise dispute with Harvard neighbors located directly over the Devens boundary. The sound has since been muffled with noise absorbing walls.

Another Devens friction point has been the ever-looming issue of how to dispose of the former Army base. Culver repeatedly rued about the reported $1.4 million study he authorized that led to the so-called “2B” vote in 2008 that would have created a town out of the former Fort Devens land but also return some outlands to the surrounding towns. The initiative failed to garner Harvard’s support.

Former Harvard selectman William Marinelli was a 2B proponent. On Wednesday, Marinelli said of Culver’s resignation, “I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or not. In state government, people come and go, except Bob since 2B.”

Marinelli said he was originally agnostic about 2B but then embraced the effort. “Clearly, this is seen to be off the table for discussion for a while. It’s been 3 years since the vote and I don’t think anyone’s had the stomach to revisit it since then.”

Marinelli channeled the sentiment of former Harvard resident Robert Lerner and agreed “the first person to bring Devens to a vote would probably lose and we kind of knew that going in. It was a first attempt because, frankly, a lot of people were tired of talking about it.”

“Within the process at the time, there was no way you were going to give the land back to the towns.” But Marinelli believes now that will be the ultimate outcome. “I think it is almost inevitable that Devens will go back to the towns. It’s just a matter of when. The Devens arrangement was already an unconventional arrangement when it was set up. Trying to do something radically unconventional, you’re bound to lose.”

Another push was to bring more housing to Devens. A 2005 report commissioned by MassDevelopment highlighted the need for 2,700 additional housing units in the region over a 20-year period. In 2009, however, Ayer Town Meeting blocked a MassDevelopment-led initiative to rezone the 20-acre, 7-building Vicksburg Square complex from Innovation and Technology to residential use for up to 350 units. Ayer voters questioned the impact on their community.

Upon hearing of Culver’s impending departure, Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant said, “Let’s hope they can get someone in there who can be open and candid with us and the town.” Maxant opposed the Vicksburg Square rezoning then and again now that MassDevelopment has tapped a Boston developer, Trinity Financial, to push forward the redevelopment of the buildings.

Maxant blames MassDevelopment for the Devens quagmire. “It hasn’t been the Patrick Administration. It’s been the MassDevelopment culture since day one of never telling us anything and ignoring our Reuse Plan then apologizing for poor communications. I wrote in 1996 the names and faces change but the ‘Land Bank culture’ continues undiminished. They have never been dealing with us from the full deck.”

Maxant has suggested Ayer assume control and custody of Devens land. In any event, Culver’s successor doesn’t much matter in Maxant’s eyes. “I don’t see any real hope that another person will make any difference. We have to deal with the policy people in the governor’s office. That’s the only way we’ll see any difference.” Maxant said communication should also flow through the local state representatives and senators.

Maxant said Culver misrepresented that Devens would become the state’s 352nd community. “He made this promise to people who moved onto Devens but they had no authority or ability to deliver on that promise. He threw the dice and didn’t understand the table he was throwing it onto, which was that Town Meeting has authority over land use within our boundaries.”

The MassDevelopment press release listed Culver’s major achievements during his tenure, including the rehabilitation of a former federal building in downtown Springfield, development of the South Coast Research and Technology Park in Fall River, and the leveraging of “more than $9.5 billion in investment in the Commonwealth since FY2005 by financing or managing more than 1,250 projects statewide.”

However, the touted merger of the Health and Educational Facilities Agency into MassDevelopment, purported to realize savings, has yet to produce layoffs at either agency. In another recent public relations blow, the Boston Herald reported in November that MassDevelopment was looking to hire a consultant to analyze the salaries of its highest paid executives, including Culver, to make the argument that they were underpaid though the top two dozen officials draw six-figure salaries.

“I am proud to leave behind a strong, well-capitalized statewide organization ready to build on its impressive record of leveraging private investment to build homes, create jobs and reclaim blighted property around the Commonwealth,” said Culver in the prepared statement.

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