FORT BRAG: Promise of millions in renovation dollars gives boost to Massachusetts Army post closed in 1990s
by Mary Jo Shafer
Special to The Star
Aug 18, 2013 | 6393 views |  0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Scenes from Fort McClellan and Fort Devens, way back in the day. (Archive images)
Scenes from Fort McClellan and Fort Devens, way back in the day. (Archive images)
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DEVENS, Mass. – Mika Brewer remembers what Devens looked like shortly after the U.S. Army post in central Massachusetts closed in 1996.

After a storied, 79-year history as the Army’s New England headquarters, the base’s thousands of acres were a bit desolate.

Many remembered fondly the busy, bustling place the post had been. Families lived in the tidy neighborhoods and officers enjoyed the stately brick homes on tree-lined streets. The parade ground was often full and the post had the buzz of purpose. Generations of soldiers went through Devens — it trained infantry divisions, nurses, cooks, chaplains and bakers, and in 1940 it became the reception center for all New England draftees, according to the Devens website. It also served as a demobilization center for many returning troops. Since its birth in 1917, as Camp Devens, and its naming as a permanent Army post, Fort Devens, in 1931, the land had played a vital role in the nation and region’s military history.

But, after the Army packed up and left in the mid-1990s, one got the sense that tumbleweeds could soon start rolling down the streets, says Brewer, the vice president of sales, marketing and real estate in Devens.

Brewer works for MassDevelopment, a public-private enterprise that, according to its website, works to “strengthen the Massachusetts economy.”

“You couldn’t get a cup of coffee here,” he said recently, sitting in a van at an intersection by the new Devens Common area, where hotels, a gas station and small shops now stand.

In 1996, the future looked daunting. It is a scene familiar to any community that has withstood a base closure and one that is echoed in the challenges Anniston faces after the 1999 closure of Fort McClellan. For Ayer, Shirley and Harvard, towns that have always been linked to the fort’s physical property as well as its fate, the fort’s closure was devastating. More than 7,000 jobs were wiped out and the communities that had catered to the post for decades were left reeling. But planners recognized that the crisis that demanded an innovative approach, so they embarked on a bold experiment.

It is an experiment that has been successful in many ways. It would become one of the largest redevelopment projects in the Commonwealth’s history.

Brewer smiles, remembering the first time he turned onto this road and had to wait for traffic to pass. “To see that transformation after 11 years” has been rewarding, he says. Today, Devens is a thriving multi-use community, cited as a model for base-redevelopment efforts nationwide.

Eighty-seven businesses currently operate at Devens, employing 3,634 people, according to a report released in June from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Donahue Institute.

These jobs are in private, nonprofit and government sectors; 72 percent are private-sector jobs. Devens jobs pay good wages, the report says. “Estimated average wages in Devens are high relative to those in the Commonwealth, $69,210 versus $57,304,” according to the report.

Drive down the wide boulevard that enters Devens today and one is greeted by a mix of bucolic and historic scenes, interspersed with industrial sites.

Economic development is in full-swing here — attracting everything from biotech companies to warehouses and light manufacturing.

Around 150 families also live in Devens. And, according to the Donahue Institute study, the former base’s total economic contribution to Massachusetts equals $1.44 billion. This includes estimated direct spending of $841 million and an additional $600 million in indirect spending, the report says.

With these contributions come tax revenue, as well. The report says private firms at Devens “can be expected to pay an estimated $2.94 million in corporate profits tax in 2013, while their employees will pay an estimated $12.9 million in personal income tax.”

Devens has thrived even during the economic downturn. Planners and state officials tout it as a shining success story and virtually beam with pride when talking about the former post.

So, how did this happen? How did Devens get where it is today, and what lessons does it offer for other similar communities, such as Anniston?

The Devens story offers a lesson in the benefits of sustainable mixed-use planning, government collaboration and business recruitment strategies.

Development at Devens doesn’t happen by chance. It is carefully planned — there is an overriding vision that is enshrined in its master re-use plan, and everything refers back to that document.

Planners have been blessed with a supportive state Legislature and successive governors from both parties and a central agency — MassDevelopment – with the means to manage and facilitate the process. It also benefits from fast-track permitting that makes Devens appealing to businesses, a highly skilled and educated workforce and an accessible location.

Challenges do remain and the question of housing at the former fort – how much is too much and who should have the final say and the challenge of what will happen to Devens when MassDevelopment is slated to leave in 2031 – will likely be key topics of conversation and debate in the years to come.

Transforming Devens

Devens’ military history is felt all around.

The U.S. Army Reserve still keeps a substantial training and vehicle maintenance presence on 5,000 acres here. A federal prison hospital – where accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is housed — sits in a barbed-wire-clad enclave and remains Devens’ biggest employer. Streets still bear the names of generals and battles: Patton, Sherman, Antietam and Vicksburg Square among them. A museum carefully preserves and celebrates the base’s history.

But, Devens is also transformed in many ways from the Army fort it once was. Dog walkers and bicyclists roam the quiet and pastoral streets. Flower gardens and trim green lawns dot the residential neighborhoods.

Shirley has carved out a section of Devens – known as the Shirley Village Area – for municipal buildings and a new middle school.

The Frances W. Parker Essential Charter School educates students from a variety of towns. The Shriver Job Corps gives “at-risk” youth training and educational opportunities. There is a food bank, a women’s shelter, housing for homeless veterans, child-care centers and shops. There are acres of open space and many businesses employing thousands.

How did Devens get here?

It was a huge challenge. How to take 4,400 acres and transform them into a multi-use, vibrant community? How to replace the jobs that left with the Army? How to care for and manage the land? How to draw employers?

Who was even capable of rising to this challenge? The local towns? The state?

As with most base closures, the federal government was the messenger and executioner but then would step aside. It would deem the need for Army Reserve training facilities and the prison hospital. It would clean up the extensive environmental issues — Devens was declared a SuperFund site when the Army left, mostly because of leaking oil storage containers and a former parachute dry-cleaning facility that leached chemicals into the ground, according to Brewer.

Planners were faced with both serious environmental challenges and an “antiquated” infrastructure, with many deferred maintenance issues, says Brewer.

It seemed a huge challenge – one that the three towns didn’t have the capacity to undertake. So, it seemed early on that redeveloping Devens would take an innovative approach. Enter MassDevelopment.

Devens shares many characteristics with McClellan. Both are former Army posts that were closed in the 1990s and both are going through a redevelopment process.

The similarities seem to end there, however. Most Devens stakeholders say the role of MassDevelopment — the quasi-public agency tasked with managing the redevelopment – has been key in any successes they have had.

After the Army left, Devens received the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars through this state-enabled private-public partnership. McClellan has been forced to make it on its own. The Army paid millions of dollars to clean up unexploded ordnance, but neither state nor local governments offered cash to develop and promote the property.

Meanwhile, for Devens, MassDevelopment has been the facilitator of its new life.

According to George Ramirez, MassDevelopment’s executive vice president of Devens operations, the redevelopment of Devens has been unique, even in comparison to other closed military bases in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Legislature “enacted Chapter 498 of the Acts of 1993 naming the Government Land Bank as the Devens redevelopment authority and the Devens Enterprise Commission (DEC) as the local permitting authority,” says Ramirez in an email.

Devens was purchased for $17.9 million and the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, commonly known as MassDevelopment, would succeed the land bank as the organization charged with running Devens.

“MassDevelopment is a quasi-public organization that gets some funding from the Commonwealth restricted for specific uses but mostly has to generate its own resources,” explains Ramirez.

It does this with interest from successful loans and with fees for issuing tax-exempt bonds for nonprofits, manufacturers and others, according to a Boston Globe profile of the agency.

MassDevelopment has projects in a variety of Commonwealth communities. It functions as a lender and developer and offers finance programs and real estate development.

During 2012, MassDevelopment worked on 280 projects and invested nearly $2.5 billion, according to its annual report.

About 40 MassDevelopment staffers work in Devens.

Getting started

The first step at Devens was coming up with a master plan to dictate use. This mixed-used plan was created with “a lot of input from local communities,” says Brewer.

Replacing some of the jobs lost when the base closed was the No. 1 priority.

“These communities have taken a significant hit from the base closure,” says Brewer. “Our mission has been to replace jobs, attract businesses.”

The towns of Ayer, Shirley and Harvard had cultivated a business community and workforce that catered to their federal neighbor. The three towns had long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the fort. On one street that directly borders Devens in Ayer, for example, there is still the ghost of the typical soldier-centric strip mall sprawling out from the fort, which catered to the 15,000 military families that lived at Devens in its heyday.

But planners also recognized the danger of relying on one industry to redeem the area and so sought to recruit a wide mix of industries.

They didn’t want Devens to be a “one-trick pony,” says Brewer. “Leadership … knew we had to diversify.”

“A mixed-use project was envisioned in the master plan,” he says. “I think Devens has benefited from multi-use … I feel as though we have a good balance, sustainable development.”

Planners also included a residential component, with a strict cap on new housing units.

“Devens seeks to balance its commercial and residential users in ways that ultimately benefit both parties,” says Ramirez.

Planners also sought to include recreation offerings and to preserve the historic area of the base.

Initially, MassDevelopment “focused its development on the core,” Brewer says. That meant repairing and rebuilding sewer, electricity and water systems and “upgrading the infrastructure.”

All of that work was vital in order to make the land appealing to businesses and residents, planners say.

A business services district was included in the re-use plan because developers “recognized the need for hospitality, restaurants, things to support businesses,” says Brewer. That vision has been realized in the Devens Common area, which now houses two hotels, a restaurant, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a gym, a dry cleaner, a credit union and a gas station. There’s also a public golf course, a community center, playing fields and a lake that is open to swimming and boating.

Current business tenants include a newspaper production hub, a central baking facility for Dunkin’ Donuts, a warehouse that uses robots to fulfill e-commerce orders, various high-tech life science and biotech operations, a wind-turbine manufacturer, defense contractors and a recycling plant.

There was also space set aside for an “innovation technology park,” which houses smaller tenants, such as start-ups, says Brewer.

In many ways, Devens is booming, but planners also sought a development plan that would last and would take into account environmental concerns.

Peter Lowitt, director of the Devens Enterprise Commission, says sustainable development emerged as a unifying theme when the first brainstorming sessions with stakeholders were held in the 1990s. That ultimately meant that out of Devens’ 4,400 acres, 1,800 would be set aside for mixed-use economic development which would be handled with care to protect natural resources, says Lowitt.

Businesses hoping to locate at Devens must show a commitment to sustainable development, such as building greener buildings or plans to offset any possible air pollution, he says.

Developers created the Devens Eco-Efficiency Center to help in these efforts. The center works with businesses to “green their operations” through mentoring, forums and education. Devens has been structured as an “ecological industrial park” that has been recognized as a model for this sort of development, says Lowitt.

The focus on sustainable development also means being mindful of things such as availability of sidewalks and walking, hiking and biking trails to improve public health, he says.

Some might think added green regulations could create a burden to attracting development. Not so, says Lowitt. He says it’s been an advantage.

“A number of companies have come here because of the ecological concepts,” he says. He cites Bristol-Myers Squibb, which includes sustainable development in its mission statement. “It didn’t hurt that we had that alignment,” he says.

Devens planners are also mindful of preserving open space and wildlife habitat.

There’s some land set aside for the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife service, and because Devens happens to be friendly territory for the endangered Blanding’s turtle, the land is dotted with yellow turtle-crossing signs.

Even as the eco-conscious ethos may appeal to global companies, the real incentive remains time, Lowitt says, because an expedited permitting process means businesses can get up and running quickly.

Enabling development

Ask MassDevelopment officials why they think they have been successful in redeveloping Devens and they cite several factors:

Brewer says a robust infrastructure and the expedited permitting process are two key advantages.

Funding and support from the Commonwealth, “the general strength of the Massachusetts economy, the continued presence of the military reserve forces at Fort Devens, the presence of talented workers near Devens in greater Boston and greater Worcester, and the expedited-permitting process” have made the re-use plan work, says Ramirez.

The expedited permitting comes up again and again when talking with Devens stakeholders. Businesses coming to Devens are promised a 75-day permitting process to get up and running — and in many cases the permits are cleared in under 75 days.

Tom Kinch, Devens resident and member of a local governing board, says the fast-track permitting has been invaluable.

“They have the ability to offer prospective industrial users a good, high-quality geography and quick permitting. They can basically give them authority in a very short time – less than 75 days – authority to build,” he says.

Mary Jo Shafer is a former Anniston Star assistant metro editor who now works as a journalist and educator in her native Massachusetts. She can be reached at mjshafer67@gmail.com.
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