FRAMINGHAM — It’s been four years since local officials and business leaders launched “Choose Framingham,” a campaign aimed at boosting its image as an ideal place to live, work, relax, and visit. Last week, they took that slogan a step further, announcing the kick-off of “Choose Framingham for Business,” an initiative aimed at bringing new businesses to town and making it easier for them to plant roots.
A who’s who of local government and business leaders, from Town Manager Robert Halpin to Framingham Economic Development and Industrial Corporation chairman Mike Gatlin, and executives from local companies including HeartWare Inc. and Genzyme Corp., attended the event at Genzyme’s local facility, where they gave presentations explaining why they believe the town is good for businesses.
“This wasn’t a leisure thing, a casual decision,” Gatlin said of the quasi-public operation he oversees. “We started this initiative so that we could show business that things have changed here for the better, for their side of the aisle. We have made it easier over the past couple of years to do business here. And trust me, it wasn’t always that way.”
Gatlin pointed to Framingham’s post-World War II reputation as “the place to be” for businesses — based on its location, easy access to the Mass. Pike, and the presence of major companies, such as General Motors — and how that reputation may have gone to the town’s collective head. After the war, Framingham began to take a devil-may-care tone when new businesses would complain about the town’s difficult bureaucracy and threaten to move elsewhere, he said.
“The permitting process became bogged down. It was expensive, and there were no guarantees that in the end you’d get your permit,” Gatlin said. “There was a level of arrogance here that drove businesses to Westborough, Natick, and other towns. We didn’t learn our lesson for a very long time. Then four or five years ago, some people started to wise up and said we’ve got to change and fix this process. It seems like the whole town rallied behind the idea.”
Justin Krebs, a partner with Normandy Real Estate Partners, a development company that has built and rehabbed several major corporate properties in Framingham in recent years, spoke at Wednesday’s event about the change to which Gatlin referred.
Krebs cited a Normandy project at 15 Pleasant St. Connector as a success story.
“It’s more a redevelopment,” he explained later. “But we are in talks already with possible tenants, businesses that are considering Framingham. And the important thing is when we approached the town and the Planning Board, they assured us they could get things done — get us permitted and get our project moving forward in six months. But I can’t say enough that we got it done in just four and a half months. They kept their word to us and exceeded it. And there’s nothing more attractive to business.”
Peter McAree, senior vice president and chief financial officer of HeartWare, a Framingham-headquartered tech company whose devices combat heart failure, spoke Wednesday as well, describing to the audience how company officials had been leery of seeking permits to renovate and move into a larger building last year to accommodate its 88 percent growth rate.
He said he was pleasantly surprised at how streamlined Framingham’s permitting process was — something he attributed to the town having all relevant departments work in synch, instead of the building department reviewing a permit application first, then passing the application on to the Fire Department, and so on.
“And that’s exactly what we’ve been working toward,” said Halpin, the town manager. “Some of this stuff was just ingrained. Lots of local governments do things that are clunky and slow. But why keep doing them that way? And one of the first things we addressed was the question to why different departments couldn’t simultaneously review permitting applications.
“The answer was that there was no good reason, and by allowing for simultaneous review we could drastically cut the amount of time applications take,” he told the gathering.
Not just major corporations lauded Framingham during Wednesday’s meeting. Ian Barrett, creative boss for MediaBoss Television, a small production company near downtown, said that when his company began exploring the available office space, Halpin and other local officials met with his team, and asked what, specifically, the town could do to help.
“I tell people Framingham is awesome,” Barrett said to chuckles. “One conversation . . . and what we needed got taken care of.”
Barrett explained after the meeting that space was a major factor in his company’s choice of Framingham.
“It’s certainly not distance,” he said. “It takes no longer to drive from Boston to here than it does from Boston to Cambridge. And it’s not cost. We’re paying much less in rent. It’s not attentiveness. Again, like I said during my talk, the town has been in lock step with us from day one. The big factors were the space, and how easy the town made it for us to make the space over the way we needed.
“We have so much space that we can entertain clients. When they visit us, they’re not circling the block looking for a parking garage. They park on the street, cheaply. And our space is so work-friendly and so comfortable that clients stay a while, and we not only bond better, but we get more collaborative work done that way.”