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Incentives luring developers to build

Local, state officials are banking on incentives to spark development projects

Improvements to downtown Lowell’s Appleton Mills complex include interior renovations that retain the property’s industrial heritage.Mark Wilson/globe staff

Commercial developers and businesses that want to settle in the area are now being wooed with tax incentives that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars and a streamlined permitting process.

From initial concept to a completed site plan, a company could have a project approved within 180 days, less than half the time it typically takes.

Communities across the region are seizing the incentives. Among the most successful is Lowell, which has transformed itself from a 19th-century mill city to a vibrant urban community.

Appleton Mills stands as a prime example of how these strategies can be used to breathe new life into buildings that once seemed fated for demolition. The downtown Lowell property is home to 130 affordable-housing units where artists can live and work in airy spaces that boast tall ceilings and dazzling light. To make the metamorphosis possible, the city offered expedited permitting and the state invested $3.8 million in the project.

The Appleton Mills redevelopment is the first phase of the revitalization of the city’s Hamilton Canal District, which encompasses 15 acres at the confluence of four canals. The overall project is expected to be completed in six phases over a 10-year period.


The state has provided support through a $16.45 million MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant, part of the Patrick administration’s efforts to increase jobs in the state.

Throughout the suburbs north of Boston, communities are finding that promises of expedited permitting and big tax breaks can inspire companies to start talking about making a long-term commitment.

Pharmalucence, a specialty pharmaceutical company, decided to move out of Bedford and develop a new $40 million facility in Billerica after securing local tax relief and a $1.26 million investment tax credit from the state.

In Chelmsford, Kronos Inc. was wooed with $200,000 in local tax relief, which will be granted to the software maker over the life of its six-year lease. The company will retain the 1,048 employees who work in Chelmsford, and will make a private investment of $2.5 million.


Georgetown officials are looking for ways to use the same tools to lure developers to two vacant 50-acre sites along Route 133, near Interstate 95.

Howard Snyder, the town planner, and James L. Lacey, vice chairman of the town’s Economic Development Committee, toured Lowell on Tuesday to gain insight on how the state’s fourth-largest city has attracted so many suitors.

Lacey noted that some of the lessons may not pertain to Georgetown, which has just 8,183 residents compared with Lowell’s 105,167.

The roof deck at Appleton Mills.Mark Wilson/Globe Staff

“We’re so much smaller that it will be hard to make strict comparisons, but still, you get ideas when you see what others have done,’’ he said.

Georgetown’s focus is on projects that were ushered through under the state’s expedited permitting law, Chapter 43D. Town officials are looking to gain a better understanding of how the process works, Snyder said.

“We want to hear both the pros and cons, from Lowell’s perspective,’’ he said. “It may or may not directly apply to what we’re doing here in Georgetown, but it’s definitely something we need to become more knowledgeable about.’’

In January, Georgetown adopted the expedited permitting program for the two vacant sites, which Snyder said are ideally suited to commercial, manufacturing, or light industrial uses.


“Companies are often working under tight deadlines,’’ Snyder said. “They have to be up and running by a certain time or they’ll lose their financing. Expedited permitting may make the financing piece a bit easier for them.’’

Under Chapter 43D, the review process is the same as with any other project, but the time frame is condensed, Snyder said. “Expedited projects are subject to the same scrutiny and citizen input as regular developments,’’ he said.

In addition to a fast-tracked permitting program, Georgetown is able to offer Tax Increment Financing plans, under which a business pays the full tax rate on the base value of a property, but for a period from five to 20 years is exempt from paying higher taxes on all or part of the increased value as a result of development.

The town also is making state-funded investment tax credits available to companies that set up shop in the Route 133 corridor. These state and local tax breaks are within reach because Georgetown was approved in December for designation as an Economic Target Area under the state’s Economic Development Incentive Program. The same program kept Gorton’s in Gloucester, and persuaded the global corporation Cobham Defense Electronics Systems to consolidate several of its United States business units in Lowell.

Architectural touches at Appleton Mills.Mark Wilson/Globe Staff

Lacey believes the promise of expedited permitting, coupled with the potential for big tax breaks, may lure developers who would otherwise pass on Georgetown’s Route 133 parcels into taking a second look.


“We’re hoping these programs will help us attract a company that’s interested in putting up a new facility on either of those sites,’’ said Lacey. “The competition in this region is fierce. One of the problems we have is that most of the commercial property we have is in land. In other communities, the commercial buildings already exist and are empty.’’

A project’s inclusion in the tax incentive programs would need to be approved by local and state officials and the developer, and then approved by Town Meeting voters.

“That’s the way it is with so many important changes in a town,’’ said Snyder. “The voters have the final say.’’

Georgetown qualified for inclusion in the Economic Development Incentive Program because it has more than 3 million square feet of developable land sitting vacant and is facing certain financial challenges, including a tax base that depends heavily on residential property owners, said Annamarie Kersten, director of the state program.

Over the past two years, the state’s Economic Assistance Coordinating Council has approved 79 projects for inclusion in the Economic Development Incentive Program, one of the most effective initiatives for helping businesses in Massachusetts grow.

Those projects are expected to create 4,774 new jobs and retain 15,253 existing jobs, in addition to leveraging more than $2.7 billion in private investment and supporting construction projects across Massachusetts, according to the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.


“I think Georgetown has a great opportunity with these priority development sites to diversify its tax base, increase employment opportunities, and become a regional economic presence,’’ said Snyder, which would help ease the tax burden on local homeowners in the process.

The renovated Appleton Mills property on Jackson Street in Lowell is part of the city’s Hamilton Canal District project. Mark Wilson/Globe Staff

Nearly 91 percent of the town’s property taxes are paid by residential property owners. Last May, Georgetown voters approved a $1.2 million tax increase to supplement the school district’s operating budget, adding $379 to the annual bill for the average single-family home in town, valued at $397,872. It was only the second time since 1990 that residents approved a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

The town is working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority on plans to replace the Penn Brook Elementary School, a project that would require another significant investment by local taxpayers.

“Given the financial challenges facing the town, I think it’s important that we develop our commercial property,’’ said Lacey.

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.