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Innovation Economy

In Somerville, shuttered factory now a hub of innovation

Employees  at Keystone Tower Systems worked on a piece of a wind turbine at Greentown Labs in Somerville.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Employees at Keystone Tower Systems worked on a piece of a wind turbine at Greentown Labs in Somerville.

The obituary of the Ames Safety Envelope Company was written in February 2010. The Somerville company had grown to about 600 employees in the mid-20th century, making sturdy envelopes, boxes, and file folders for medical records. But as the world started going digital, its business shrank, and eventually Ames was bought by a Wisconsin company rolling up similar manufacturers.

The last 150 jobs at Ames vanished in 2010. Most of the equipment was sold at auction, and the factory went dark.

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Ames had once been among the biggest employers in the city — “an institution,” says Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone. The question facing the city, he says, was “What do we do with all this land and these buildings?”

With the recession dragging on, the descendants of Ames’ founder considered selling the property, but weren’t sure they could find a buyer. And they fretted over filling the 290,000-square-foot complex with tenants. “I thought it was an almost impossible task,” says Arthur Fitzgerald, grandson of the company’s founder, John W. Fitzgerald.

Skip ahead four years: The final chunk of space in the Ames complex was leased this month. And what is now known as the Ames Business Park is not only fully occupied, it also has become the entrepreneurial epicenter of Somerville, home to a brewery, dozens of start-ups, a pinata maker, an electric guitar maker, a climbing gym, coffee roaster, t-shirt printer, artists, bicycle hackers, and a team building a giant, eight-legged walking robot called Stompy.

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It’s a more diverse blend of people and ideas than you’d find in Kendall Square — in part because rent is cheaper — and it’s more densely-packed than Boston’s Innovation District. Curtatone calls it a “village of innovation,” and it has a neighborly, rooted vibe that you don’t typically find in a business park.

The growth of Ames Safety Envelope was a story of entrepreneurship in an earlier era. Ames was founded by Fitzgerald, a former postal worker, in 1919, to produce more durable and tamper-proof envelopes. (He chose the name Ames because it sounded American rather than Irish.) Later, the company developed color-coded files to hold medical records and packaging for floppy disks.

Ames employed wave after wave of new arrivals: first Irish and Italian, and later Brazilian and Cape Verdean. Revenues at one point hit $70 million, but by the time Tab Products of Wisconsin acquired Ames, sales had shrunk to about $25 million.

My tour of the Ames Business Park earlier this month began and ended with microorganisms and beverages.

Greentown Labs is a shared facility for startups focused on energy and the environment. It was founded in 2010 in East Cambridge, but nudged out of that neighborhood, and then Boston’s Innovation District, by demolitions, renovations, and increasing rent.

Among the 49 startups operating at Greentown are Loci Controls and Refresh Water. Loci is developing a system to control the collection of methane gas at landfills, which is produced by bacteria that eat garbage. It can be a challenge to extract the gas efficiently so it can be burned to produce electricity, as well as keep a lid on the foul methane smell.

Refresh is developing a vending machine that sells filtered water (plain, sparkling, and flavored) in a refillable pouch. That reduces the cost and energy required to ship water in bottles to a network of machines. The first Refresh machine will be installed on MIT’s campus this fall, chief executive Sean Grundy says.

Greentown also hosts seminars, company showcases, and a bimonthly mixer called Energy Bar. Among the tenants at Ames, it is the only one to receive government incentives to locate there: Somerville provided a $300,000 working capital loan, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center supplied a $190,000 grant.

A few steps away is Artisan’s Asylum, another shared space, and the tenant that sparked the rebirth of the Ames complex. Artisan’s was looking for room to grow in 2011, and the Fitzgerald family offered a flexible deal that allowed the nonprofit to pay for space as it expanded. “We took about 25,000 square feet at first,” says co-founder Gui Cavalcanti, “and now we’re at 40,000.” Cavalcanti teaches classes on robotics and is supervising the construction of Stompy, a project that raised nearly $100,000 online.

About 300 artists, entrepreneurs, and “weekend warriors” have memberships to Artisan’s Asylum, which start at $60 a month. They get access to a woodshop, metalshop, jewelry studio, and other facilities. Among members I met were K. Gretchen Greene, a former Boston attorney who quit her job last year to make steel sculptures, and Ecco Pierce, who makes illuminated jewelry and clothing.

Pierce also creates small sculptures using a handheld tool called the 3Doodler, which spits out streams of plastic. It was developed at the Asylum by a startup called WobbleWorks.

Next door to Artisan’s is Brooklyn Boulders, a cavernous climbing gym where several dozen members slowly ascend the walls, or drop down from belaying ropes. On a mezzanine level, there’s space for members to sit and work on laptops. A coffee stand run by Triangle Coffee — a new start-up, of course — opened in the lobby this month.

My last stop is Aeronaut Brewing Co., which opened in June. Co-founder Ben Holmes tells me that 800 people recently filled the brewery and the paved courtyard outside for an event called “Bands! Bacon! Beer!” Adjacent to the brewery is what Holmes calls the Foods Hub; businesses like Barismo, a coffee roaster, and Somerville Chocolate sublet space.

Climbers scaled the walls at Brooklyn Boulders  in Somerville.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Climbers scaled the walls at Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville.

When I arrived on a Friday afternoon, Holmes was supervising preparations for another special event, directing a barbecue truck to a parking space. Aeronaut just leased the last 6,000 square feet in the complex to set up a yeast lab while ramping up beer production. “This is the most fun thing I’ve ever been involved with,” Holmes says.

While the 43 tenants in the Ames complex don’t yet employ the 600 people that Ames Safety Envelope once did, property manager Tom Connery says that “on any peak night, we probably have as many people here as once were at Ames,” taking classes, climbing, or working on hobbies, art, and side projects. “This place pulses at night,” Connery says. (By most estimates, the complex now employs at least 150 -- about the number working at Ames when it shut down in 2010.)

Now, the question for Somerville is how to encourage similar “innovation villages” to spring up. What happened at the Ames complex was a rare confluence of empty industrial space, entities eager to fill it, and a light touch when it came to planning and marketing. Somerville is working to compile a list of similar properties, and to create “fabrication” districts in its zoning code, to prevent old warehouses and factories from being converted into housing.

Ames, says Mayor Curtatone, “has really had an impact on our thinking as policy-makers about how to preserve such spaces, to allow for more startups and ideas to flourish in Somerville, and to grow that new economy in our city.”

Magic can be hard to replicate — but it’s worth trying.

Timeline of the former Ames factory

1938 — John W. Fitzgerald, who started Ames Safety Envelope in 1919, buys an 18,000 sq. ft. building at 21 Vine Street (now Properzi Way) in Somerville. The company makes envelopes as well as some filing pockets and folders. One building in the complex had been part of the American Tube Works, founded in 1851 to make brass and copper tubes for locomotives and ships.

1980s to 1990s — Ames is Somerville’s largest employer and the largest provider in the country of color-coded filing products to the health care industry, with over 40 percent market share. Sales peak at about $70 million, and employment at just over 600 employees.

2010 — Most of the assets of Ames Safety Envelope are sold to Tab Products of Wisconsin. John Fitzgerald’s descendants still own the property, and begin looking for tenants.

2011 — Artisan’s Asylum rents space in the complex. The nonprofit offers members access to a machine shop and also teaches classes in everything from jewelry-making to welding to robot-building. Members can also rent workspace.

2013 — Greentown Labs, a shared office and prototyping space for energy-related businesses, announces it will move to the complex, and the Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym opens.

2014 — Aeronaut Brewing Company opens a production facility, tasting room, and Foods Hub, which sublets space to other food-related companies. By August, the Ames complex is completely full.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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