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Low-key meeting of locals, MassDevelopment Directors

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DEVENS – The MassDevelopment Board of Directors held its Oct. 12 meeting on Devens. Absent was board Chair and Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development Secretary Gregory Bialecki. MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones indicated that instead of the once-per-year visit, perhaps the board would consider holding another meeting on Devens – perhaps in the evening hours to allow those with daytime jobs to attend and interface with the directors.

In attendance were 3 Harvard, 1 Ayer and no Shirley selectmen. Ayer selectman Frank Maxant clarified that he was in attendance in his individual, not official, capacity.

Two members of the Devens Advisory Committee attended as well. With no major project pending that requires tri-town approval through the “Super Town Meeting” process, this year’s was a low-key event in comparison to prior years.

The board voted unanimously to approve $409,707 for software needed for the E911 regional emergency dispatching center under construction on Barnum Road in Devens. The facility will serve Devens, and the towns of Harvard, Lancaster and Lunenburg.

MassDevelopment touted other projects in the pipeline. Saint Gobain is building its LED light assembly operation within the 450,000 square foot former Evergreen Solar plant on Barnum Road. New England Studios is working on phase one of its movie and television studios off Jackson Road.

In July, the town of Shirley became the tenth community to join the Devens Household Hazardous Waste center off Cook Street. And the eighth ‘zero net energy’ house built off Adams Circle is now under agreement.

–Measuring Devens’ sustainability

Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) Director Peter Lowitt presented a draft Sustainability Report regarding sustainable development indicators on Devens, last studied in 2000.

Lowitt reported the average Massachusetts salary is $57,000, but the average Devens salary is $68,000. Lowitt said the DEC website illustrates the land-use boards’ “accessibility and openness” in terms of governance.

Judging Devens’ fitness is tougher, said Lowitt. “The data doesn’t really fall out for Devens” as “we’re a quasi-governmental agency.” One metric Lowitt is exploring is the “large increase” in the linear footage of sidewalks today versus what existed in 2000.

In looking at public transportation, Lowitt said Devens is increasingly serviced by rail. There was 8,000 linear feet of rail line in 2000 – today there’s 14,300 linear feet of rail with 6-8 buildings served by rail.

“We need to do some work on” Devens sustainable energy goals, said Lowitt. A 3 megawatt solar farm is planned off Walker Road. The zero net energy homes are topped by solar panels.

Data shared by the Nashua River Watershed Association will be plumbed for data to support Devens contribution towards water quality. The Devens Eco Efficiency Center is helping to ‘green’ Devens operations with reuse and recycling goals.

Frank Maxant of Ayer is a selectman but appeared individually, asking Lowitt to discuss how many businesses are currently served by rail. Lowitt answered his study doesn’t look at “mature” businesses, but the potential despite the fact that some served buildings are vacant at this time.

But Lowitt asserted that the rail service decreased truck traffic, using Devens Recycling Center on Independence Drive as an example. “They use 40-60 rail cars a month,” said Lowitt. “Each car takes 3 trucks off the roads.”

Maxant also asked how much rent MassDevelopment has paid to occupy office space at 33 Andrews Parkway on Devens. MassDevelopment Chief of Staff Meg Delorier promised staff would respond to Maxant’s request. On Tuesday, Nashoba Publishing asked Delorier to be copied on that same information when it’s available.

— MassDevelopment = Devens School Committee

Devens Education Advisory Committee member Maureen Babcock thanked the MassDevelopment Board of Directors for agreeing to a renewed contract with the Harvard School District for the continued education of Devens’ school aged children. Devens’ secondary school students have been educated in Harvard since 2006, followed by Devens’ elementary school students in 2009.

“You are actually our school committee,” Babcock said to the board. “At the end of the day, we advise you and you make the decisions.”

“We have an education contract covering kindergarten through grade 12,” said Babcock. “I think it’s great. It shows a renewed commitment by both of the parties.”

Babcock also shared with the board the third annual survey of Devens residents regarding satisfaction with the Harvard contract. “Overall the community continues to be pleased,” said Babcock. However, “One concern is clearly cost.” The renewed contract retains reimbursement for Harvard at the rate of $13,500 per Devens student educated in district, plus the actual costs for special education students.

Babcock also noted that the Ayer Shirley Regional School District, formed as of July 1, 2011, has “rejoined us” by sending a representative to attend DEAC meetings. Overall, the DEAC hopes to “increase communication to the Devens community,” said Babcock. Fresh off the presses is the DEAC’s newly launched newsletter, which will regularly report news about the schools and the 74 Devens students in attendance.

— Police contract concerns

Harvard selectman Ron Ricci thanked MassDevelopment for leading the E911 effort, calling it a “good accomplishment. It’s going to benefit my town (and) provide services at a lower cost.”

But Ricci pressed the board about the recent renewal of the Devens policing contract with the Massachusetts State Police for two years despite the fact that under state law “it’s a requirement that the policing contract be put to bid to towns and neighbors.”

“I’m a Harvard selectman. I want Harvard to get it,” admitted Ricci. “But all I ask is that each of us has an equal opportunity to bid on it. In the long run, it will benefit all of the towns.”

Devens Exec. VP for Devens Operations George Ramirez said the E911 center is distinct from policing because the dispatching facility “is truly a regional center” whereas the policing contract “would be more like a subcontract out of services.”

“But you’re right,” said Ramirez. “We’ve committed to it.” Ramirez said a timeline is being constructed and will be shared with the three Devens towns – Ayer, Harvard and Shirley – as well as the State Police. “It’s sort of a closed bidding process no one outside of that can bid.”

A subcommittee consisting of Ramirez, MassDevelopment attorney Lee Smith and Devens Fire Chief Joseph LeBlanc are planning to meet again with a consultant the agency hired to advice on Devens policing needs. By Jan. 1, 2013 the committee will meet with a charge to wrap its work by Dec. 31, 2013. The committee will be communicating with “all the stakeholders” over next year. The goal is to contract with a police department by July 1, 2014.

“I know it’s sort of an outline but that’s all that we have at this point,” said Ramirez.

— Residential development plans?

Devens Advisory Committee member Tom Kinch said “I’d be interested in the board’s attitude about the residential development of Devens. We’ve always considered it to be an enhancement to attracting industry.”

Jones said the Devens Reuse Plan contemplates the residential development of Grant Road. Remediation on the land is complete.

Jones said MassDevelopment has retained urban designer Don Powers of Providence-based Union Studio to start work with the DEC about the appropriate number of building lots to place on Grant Road and determine the size of each lot.

“We intend to move forward,” said Jones. Eventually a request for proposals for developers will result. There was no mention at the board meeting of the agency’s unsuccessful effort on March 28 when it’s chosen developer, Trinity Financial of Boston, was unable to secure tri-town approval for a 246 low income housing conversion of the vacant Vicksburg Square on Devens.

“That’s really next on our plan for housing development,” said Jones.

Devens Advisory Committee member Philip Crosby thanked Devens Recreation Director Kim Walsh for working to ensure the “hundreds of thousands” who use the Rogers Field playing fields “dong’ just trample our property.” Crosby said Walsh was “exceedingly active and willing to work with the residents.”

Babock said Devens recreation “is one of our gems” and said it was a prime factor in her move to the former Army base. Babcock encouraged the agency “to continue focusing on that as one of our assets.”

— Board business

In the morning, the MassDevelopment Board of Directors heard several reports and voted on several matters including the state of manufacturing in Massachusetts.

MassDevelopment CEO and President Marty Jones relayed a synopsis of the state of manufacturing in Massachusetts as reported by Barry Bluestone, dean of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. The fact that manufacturing is the sixth largest employer in the state, providing 12 percent of the state’s gross domestic product was “kind of a surprise to a lot of people,” said Jones.

“These jobs are really good jobs, middle skills jobs,” said Jones. “Over 60 percent are good jobs that do not require a college degree.”

The report states the Massachusetts manufacturing sector has stabilized since 2009, with 40 new manufacturing plants going on-line in 2011. Emerging and leading fields include the manufacturing of medical, automation and robotic devices.

MassDevelopment Policy and Program Impact Officer RJ McGrail talked about what manufacturer’s want. McGrail said manufacturers state a need for skilled workers. Also, financing is needed for both ventures that produce tangible products, but also intangible goods like intellectual property.

Access to capital isn’t a problem for most, said McGrail. The top two sources of capital are the personal funds of the investor and commercial banks.

But recurring issues surface for manufacturers – 92 percent cite the cost of providing health insurance to workers, 77 percent cite workers’ compensation costs, 74 percent want lower energy costs, 74 percent want reduced unemployment compensation obligations, but 72 percent want a more business friendly state government.

“Those are similar and probably common sounding requests from any subset of the business community,” said McGrail. A “holistic approach” is needed to begin to grapple with manufacturers’ needs, he said.

Jones said a major issue is the ‘graying’ of the workforce and the need for new workers trained in the evolving manufacturing sector To tackle the “major skills gap,” the Patrick Administration launched its AMP it Up [Advanced Manufacturing Program] on Sept. 13 (on Twitter @AmpItUp).

MassDevelopment spokesman Mark Sternman said this week the agency would begin posting applications for matching grants to aid schools recruiting students seeking manufacturing careers.

Follow Mary Arata at facebook.com/mary.arata and twitter.com/maryearata.

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