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Lisa Marrone, at podium, speaks at a Rte. 129 stakeholder meeting to collaborate on new strategies for the Chelmsford Cross Roads in 2019. Marrone was hired by Chelmsford in 2018 to promote business development in town. (Courtesy Lisa Marrone)
Lisa Marrone, at podium, speaks at a Rte. 129 stakeholder meeting to collaborate on new strategies for the Chelmsford Cross Roads in 2019. Marrone was hired by Chelmsford in 2018 to promote business development in town. (Courtesy Lisa Marrone)

CHELMSFORD – The town’s once venerable business corridor, formerly home to tech powerhouses like Apollo and Wang, is experiencing a renaissance, rebranded as “Chelmsford Crossroads at Route 129.”

“The Crossroads initiative started with the 2010 Master Plan, it was acknowledged that that was a kind of a first-generation suburban office park built in the ‘80s, and many of the land use zoning and economic development trends kind of passed that park by and we had elevated vacancies, low rents,” said Community Development Director Evan Belansky.

He said that the first step in the town’s plan to lure businesses of all sizes to Chelmsford was to reimagine the zoning bylaws about five years ago to allow for more flexibility in the uses of the vacant office spaces.

“Zoning is a really big deal. When businesses are looking to relocate, it really decides on how they operate, and what their future expansions may need to be,” said Chelmsford Director of Business Development Lisa Marrone. “It’s important to have that base of well-founded, well-structured, smart zoning.”

Marrone, who was hired in 2018 as part of the town’s development efforts, said the town has also adopted an expedited permitting process and is hoping to build out amenities at the 600-acre area at the intersection of Interstate 495 and Route 3 , with easy access to Route 129. “The goal is to continue to build business attraction,” she said.

In the past three years, Chelmsford has cut its empty space in half, despite the pandemic, according to Marrone, including a significant number of deals in the works. As of Marrone’s last public update, about 800,000 square feet of building space is vacant out of 6 million total square feet.

Marrone serves as a self-proclaimed “Welcome Wagon” for businesses coming to Chelmsford, assisting with issues including the permitting and inspection process and workforce development. She also helps small businesses secure grants, which has become an increasingly important part of her role during the pandemic.

Marrone is working on a bevy of initiatives to build out the workforce in Chelmsford. She’s currently creating a workforce resource guide to aid businesses in their recruitment efforts, and is working on an initiative called “Age-Friendly Chelmsford,” designed to build out employment opportunities for “mature workers,” who may be semi-retired but looking to stay active.

She’s also continuing the efforts begun by the Economic Development Commission, who developed a logo and website to advertise the site and give it a brand identity “from an office park to an advanced technology area,” she said.

Once she came on board, she led the charge on creating a drone video to showcase the area. She also puts out a newsletter and TV show to talk about the development, and recently presented plans to the Select Board to add a large electronic sign advertising the space. Eventually, she hopes to add smaller signs throughout the park to establish “a sense of place” and other amenities including bike paths and event spaces.

“These businesses are not necessarily needing that high-visibility address, but we do have 10,000 workers that come into the Crossroads every day and really great stuff happening,” she said. “A marketing and branding campaign is really important right now to add to that business attraction and the purpose of why we want to locate here.”

She added that while the pandemic delayed many large projects, she’s finding that the pandemic was actually helpful in ways to Chelmsford’s business development, particularly for large businesses. “We’re finding that as Chelmsford still provides a great combination of resources and support and housing and workforce development and empty space, it seems that some of the Boston (businesses) don’t need that fancy address any longer, so they’re looking out in the Chelmsford area,” she said.

Marrone added, though, that the pandemic has been tough on small businesses in town. However, she said that many small businesses are opening in the near future or have recently opened, and the town has supported these small businesses with loans and allowances for business model modifications like outdoor dining and curbside pickup.

To stay competitive in the region, Belansky said the Planning Board is advancing two zoning articles at Town Meeting to expand the types of businesses that can set up shop in Chelmsford: one to authorize ecommerce fulfillment centers, and one to authorize accessory uses to retail marijuana sales. “The town needs to continue to bring all of our resources and opportunities to the table to allow that 129 area to overcome some of its challenges,” he said.

He said that the region is already diverse in its industries, including biotechnology, robotics, defense and software, to name a few. Marrone added that the announcement that Chelmsford received a platinum rating for being “BioReady,” as designated by MassBio, meaning it’s hospitable to and committed to biotech companies, has already generated buzz.

Triton Systems, Inc., one of the latest businesses to announce a move to a new space in Chelmsford, develops technology solutions largely for the federal government, including the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and Department of Transportation. The company has been in Chelmsford since its founding in 1992, and moved into its new space on Billerica Road in January.

““I’m very excited by what the Crossroads at 129 has envisioned in terms of the whole corridor, the biotech (and other) industries, so we think we fit well in that space, and it would be great if there were more partners,” said Triton Chief Operating Officer David Model.

Model said Triton is staying in Chelmsford because of existing relationships with the town’s business development leaders, its proximity to Boston and Manchester, N.H., its affordability, its manageable traffic and the company’s strong relationship with nearby UMass Lowell, among other reasons. He also cited the region’s good schools and infrastructure.

Town Manager Paul Cohen cited the upcoming arrival of the popular local chain Pressed Cafe as a signal that the nature of the workplace is changing. “It changed from that the traditional model of you had a place where you live and a place where you worked, to what they call the ‘live, work, play’ environment, where everything is integrated, where employees want to go out and take a walk at lunchtime, and there’s dining nearby,” he said.

He added that at least two other restaurant deals are in the works in that area.

Cohen said residents shouldn’t be too worried about overdevelopment, because there are ample resources and open space that will be preserved in town. “Like anything else, change is constant,” he said.

“What it comes down to,” he said, is that “employers are going to go and settle and recruit from places where employees want to be, and we think we’re creating that environment.”