The company that now controls the former South Weymouth air base knew it needed to make a bold offer to win a marquee tenant, so it promised something unusual: The first major commercial tenant to sign on would get its property for free.
That gamble is paying off, and hundreds of jobs are expected. LStar, the North Carolina-based firm in charge of redeveloping the sprawling property, has inked a deal that will bring Netherlands-based Prodrive Technologies to the site.
The electronics manufacturer plans to build a 300,000-square-foot complex over the next two years, with as many as 300 people working there by 2020. Prodrive, known for its robotics expertise, is still growing its reputation in the United States: This will be its first major campus in this country.
One big selling point — aside from the free land — is the ample room for expansion if the company wanted to purchase more land, which it has signaled it probably would do down the line. Prodrive executives said they hope to have as many as 500 people working there by 2025, depending on the success of its US business and the level of public subsidies the firm obtains from the state.
Landing Prodrive solves a problem that vexed the developers of the shuttered base for two decades. Over the years, hundreds of housing units opened on the western edge of the 1,500-acre property, near the South Weymouth train station. But much of the old base, previously known as SouthField but now called Union Point, languished in part due to the lack of a commercial tenant that could act as a magnet.
“Having Prodrive as the first commercial occupant will be a trigger,” said Susan Houston, the executive director of MassEcon, a nonprofit group that helped Prodrive with its site selection. “It will help legitimatize Union Point as a location for future tenants.”
An old hangar and nearby land have been used for movie work, such as the filming of the “Ghostbusters” reboot and the “Patriots Day” film about the marathon bombing. And Hingham startup DejaView Concepts signed an agreement this spring to occupy 30,000 square feet in the hangar complex. However, these aren’t the type of deals that spur construction.
Prodrive’s plans are an entirely different scale. LStar acquired ownership of the massive base redevelopment from Starwood Land Ventures last year. LStar managing partner Kyle Corkum knew he might need an enticement to draw a magnet project, which is why he told state officials he’d be willing to give away land to make it happen. Prodrive, he said, signed an agreement to acquire its first 7.5 acres, the free portion, last week.
Also paving the way: LStar and the three base towns — Weymouth, Rockland, and Abington — embarked on massive rezoning, one that could allow as much as 6 million square feet of commercial real estate to be built over a 250-acre section. State officials also recently committed to spending nearly $7 million to build a small but important connector road.
Jay Ash, Governor Charlie Baker’s economic development secretary, said the administration is negotiating with Prodrive to craft a tax-incentive package. He wants to wrap up those negotiations by the end of the year.
There was one condition for the free land, Corkum said. Prodrive would need to make a substantial commitment to Weymouth schools. The nature of that commitment is still being decided.
Prodrive specializes in automated manufacturing systems. It designs and makes robots, for its own use and to sell to other manufacturers. The company also makes a variety of electronic components, such as sensors and touch-screens, in part for the automotive and medical device industries.
Prodrive aims to be a big player in the Internet of Things — a catchall phrase often used to describe wireless connections among devices. Executives at the roughly 1,000-person company said they expect to generate roughly $170 million in revenue this year.
The company first arrived in Massachusetts by opening a small sales office in Cambridge two years ago. The depth of engineering talent in the Boston area, said Hans Verhagen, the firm’s chief executive, was the driving force behind the decision to locate here.
“In other states, you get a lot more space,” Verhagen said. “But they are not the ecosystem of Boston.”
The Prodrive complex will be integrated into a village center planned for Union Point, putting it within easy walking distance to restaurants and shops. Large windows will give passers-by the opportunity to watch the robots in action.
LStar also recently signed an agreement with Patrinely Group, a Houston-based developer, to build 150,000 square feet of offices and 25,000 square feet of retail space, and another agreement with The Keith Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., to develop a 150,000-square-foot medical building.
Ash said it’s exciting to see the property begin to reach its potential.
“When I was first down there,” Ash said, “it was a blank canvas and you could sense so much potential there.”Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.