Creating Value in State to Attract New Employers
By Jay Ash
Special to the Sentinel & Enterprise
Gov. Charlie Baker often says our economy is firing on all cylinders. Massachusetts currently has more people working than at any time in our history. Businesses continue to relocate, expand, and start up in the commonwealth. And, we’ve benefited from sustained job growth by adding more than 200,000 jobs since 2015.
Nearly every week, we are approached by an advanced manufacturer, a life-sciences company, or tech firm eager to make Massachusetts its home, and in need of the space and talent to do it. The latter of which we have in abundance.
And it seems just as often, I’m with municipal leaders looking to revitalize former industrial or commercial sites which may require a little more than elbow grease to bring them back to life. We’ve seen a number of success stories, but for every project generating new energy in cities and towns, such as the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield and Village Hill in Northampton, there are even more sites that lay fallow.
But moving from a good idea to reality, even with motivated partners in the right location, is hard. Many sites face long-standing infrastructure deficiencies, environmental contaminants, and other challenges that must be addressed before a shovel goes into the ground.
This conundrum led us to take stock of the opportunities for development across the commonwealth. Which parcels of land would be ready for a new employer to move in immediately, or where could they invest for long-term growth and future expansion? And, how could we help?
Baker created the Site Readiness Program in 2016, when he signed into law a $1 billion economic development package crafted in partnership with our state’s legislature. This program is the direct result of conversations with municipalities and employers, helps communities develop pad-ready sites to attract businesses and developers to further invest and realize its potential, and fills a crucial gap in our state-administered economic development programs.
Administered by MassDevelopment, the Site Readiness Program provides grants to municipalities and other entities to fund strategic land acquisition, feasibility studies, environmental permitting, and other critical steps in any development project. Our goal is to boost the commonwealth’s inventory of large, development-ready sites, accelerate private-sector investment in industrial and commercial projects, and, ultimately, convert abandoned sites into active, tax-generating properties. Through its first two rounds of grants, we’ve awarded $3.4 million to 26 projects, furthering the development potential for 1,885 acres.
Right here in Fitchburg, funding from the Site Readiness Program is helping the city strategize the redevelopment of a long-underutilized 43-acre brownfield site off of Airport Road. Over the years, this site has hosted a variety of activities: wastewater-treatment plant, police firing range, and a place to deposit street sweepings, fallen trees, and large quantities of paper sludge. On a separate portion of the site, sand deposits are mined by the DPW each year, mixed with salt, and spread on wintertime streets. The current conditions, and the site’s challenging topography and riverfront location, complicate its redevelopment.
Eager to put this valuable location back on the tax rolls, the City of Fitchburg applied to MassDevelopment for Site Readiness funds and received a $40,000 grant for to study the site and recommend next steps. The consultant team, hired with this funding, has helped Fitchburg better understand the site’s limits and opportunities, and prioritize next steps. Fitchburg could start remediation activities in the near future, while continuing to maximize the value of the natural sand deposits on the site. If all goes well, the first of several industrial development parcels could be ready for development in the next few years.
In Central Mass and across the state, the Site Readiness Program is unlocking key sites to help communities attract private development and make it easier for companies to do business in the commonwealth. Earlier this month, the Baker-Polito administration announced the opening of a $2.5 million funding round for the program. With complementary resources available like the Brownfields Redevelopment Fund and MassWorks Infrastructure Grants, I encourage municipalities to partner with the state to layer funding and expertise to spark economic activity in your community.
Site Readiness Program applications are available online ( massdevelopment.com/sitereadiness ) and are due Dec. 12, 2018.