Devens has mushroomed into a $1.4 billion economic development powerhouse, supporting thousands of jobs in the region, a new study contends.
The former Army base, much of which was converted into a state-owned business park in the 1990s, is now home to 95 businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies employing about 3,200 workers, according to the study commissioned by the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, which oversees Devens.
The study comes as MassDevelopment seeks to put behind it two major recent setbacks, the failure of a proposal to convert the historic Vicksburg Square barracks into housing and the implosion of once-promising Evergreen Solar, whose now-empty plant was recently auctioned off.
But those are just two pieces in a much larger puzzle, said Marty Jones, MassDevelopment’s president and chief executive, who believes the study provides a comprehensive portrait of economic activity at Devens while also highlighting the potential for more growth.
“Devens remains a vital hub for economic activity for both North Central Massachusetts and the Commonwealth,” Jones said. “We are definitely not maxed out.”
The contribution of Devens to the region’s economy goes far beyond the impact of 3,200 jobs at the converted base, according to the study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
Businesses and organizations based at Devens spent about $1.06 billion in 2010 on payroll and other expenses while also shelling out an additional $393 million to local companies for such things as real estate and supplies, the research found.
Spending by Devens businesses helped support an additional 2,600 jobs at other companies across the state, the report states. Despite the Evergreen meltdown, Devens has not hit a wall when it comes to growth and is preparing to announce two new development deals, Jones said. Nor is there any shortage of buildable land, with about half of the 8.5 million square feet of developable property available.
The job numbers do not include Evergreen, which employed hundreds at Devens in 2010, but has since closed shop. The Evergreen numbers were removed to present a more accurate picture, Jones said.
Jones, who took the reins at MassDevelopment last year, said one surprise for her was the strength of the manufacturing sector at Devens, which is adding jobs as Bristol-Myers Squibb and others expand.
Thomas Kinch, a member of a tight-knit group of residents living in homes that once housed colonels and generals, said he sees the same trend.
“There seems to be a lot more manufacturing,” Kinch said. “I think that’s good news. In the long run, it makes Devens financially stronger.”
But as MassDevelopment touts progress on commercial development at Devens, it is also officially closing the book on its pursuit of residential development at Vicksburg Square.
Jones said there will be no new attempt to find a developer interested in building housing at Vicksburg Square. Residents in neighboring Ayer and Harvard made it clear they are not interested in seeing Vicksburg Square developed into apartments when simultaneous Town Meeting sessions shot down a proposal by developer Trinity Financial in March, she said.
“We are going to work on the other parts to develop the whole vision, instead of putting the spotlight on one property when in fact we have many properties at Devens,” she said.
It was the second residential proposal in three years that was voted down by the towns that share portions of the Devens property; they have veto power over any attempts to change the zoning rules.
Instead, the development authority is seeking commercial developers and tenants for Vicksburg Square, though so far there has been little interest, Jones said.
“What the local voters said to us was, stick with the reuse plan,” Jones said. “Vicksburg Square is on the market for a commercial use.”
While Kinch said he is happy with new commercial development at Devens, he is disappointed with the failure to turn Vicksburg Square, currently a vacant eyesore near the small cluster of Devens homes where he lives, into housing.
“We are not comfortable with it but I don’t know what alternative we have. You can only tilt at so many windmills before you finally have to give up,’’ Kinch said. MassDevelopment “really struck out there.”
By contrast, Frank Maxant, an Ayer selectman who opposed housing at Vicksburg Square, said he was relieved to hear that MassDevelopment has given up on trying to convert the complex into apartments.
Maxant has long pushed for a commercial use for Vicksburg and for Devens as a whole, saying there are more than enough vacant apartments in Ayer and surrounding towns.
“To get back to that would be a huge step in the right direction,” he said.
MassDevelopment is not set to turn over control of the unincorporated area to the three host towns until 2033.