AP NEWS

Experts: Worker Perks Will Drive Region’s Economic Development

August 2, 2018

BILLERICA -- The future of the region’s economic development relies on lunch-break gardening. And workplace jogging groups. And optometrists that come to your office, not the other way around.

Companies in Middlesex County are upping employee perks in a bid to pull qualified workers, particularly millennials, away from Boston and toward job opportunities along the Route 3 corridor.

“People want to have an impact,” said Jessica Levesque, senior manager of human resources at Instrumentation Laboratory in Bedford. “They don’t want to be a number. They don’t want to be one of a thousand in a building. They want to feel like they’re able to enjoy their time at work.”

Local private- and public-sector leaders -- including state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash -- joined the conversation at an event sponsored by the Middlesex 3 Coalition and New England Real Estate Journal in Billerica on Wednesday.

As businesses are competing with each other to provide more and more amenities, local governments are engaged in a similar race.

“There was a time when the only things that happened outside is you park your car,” said Ash.

But times have changed.

Trails, sidewalks, mixed-use developments and pedestrian signals have become an important part of development for a generation who prefers walking or biking over driving.

“These are the types of amenities that are going to bring people to their towns and cities and make them a desirable place to live here,” said Katie Enright, a civil engineer at Howard Stein Hudson.

Robert Buckley an attorney who focuses on planning and commercial real estate said towns in the region have added economic development directors, who serve as a vital connection to businesses.

Though these positions might bridge the gap between town officials and businesses, Billerica Town Manager John Curran said building community support for mixed-use development can still face opposition among residents. Communicating the goals of this development can be an uphill battle, he said.

“People perceive mixed use as over development,” he said.

The Route 3 corridor has lower property costs and less traffic when compared to Boston, which works in the region’s favor, according to business leaders.

“By taking people off the road and having people work a little closer to where they live, it really had a positive impact,” said Lynn Bora, a senior vice president at Winn Residential, describing her own company’s decision to move 150 employees from offices in Faneuil Hall to Lowell.

However, historically low home ownership rates driven by millennials delaying marriage and children creates uncertainty in the suburban housing market, according to Gary Campbell, president of the Massachusetts Home Builders Association and CEO of Gary Campbell Real Estate in Lowell.

“No one knows what’s going to happen in the next five years with millennials,” said Campbell, adding, “At some point not everybody is going to live in Boston.”

A state shortage of construction labor and tariffs driving up lumber costs are also putting a damper on the region’s housing market, he said.

Tim Thompson -- regional manager for the Boston office of real estate brokerage firm Marcus & Millichap -- is more confident this population will move out of the city in a few years, in search of more affordable housing and better schools.

Until then, companies are marketing themselves to employees, whether its Bedford’s Instrumentation Laboratory offering low-cost on-premise breakfasts and lunches or Billerica’s E Ink Corp. providing a shuttle service from Boston for employees.

The end goal isn’t just to attract employees, said Dean LaMothe, director of E Ink Corp. in Billerica. It’s to retain them.

After meeting with consultants regarding 24 and 35-year-old demographic, the company repurposed 20,000 square feet as an open, collaborative lounge.

“We’re an innovation center. It’s what we do,” he said. “What are those things we can do to make it more enticing for our employees to stay long-term?”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.

AP RADIO
Update hourly