UMass, Local Firms Get Boost

06/19/2008
By From the Boston Globe

By Connie Paige

Several companies in this area and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell stand to reap a financial windfall from the new Massachusetts Life Sciences Law signed by Governor Deval Patrick this week.

The $1 billion stimulus package, designed to boost the emerging life sciences field statewide with tax credits and grants, also brings the Merrimack Valley one step closer to seeing a new interchange built on Interstate 93. Officials say they hope the additional highway access will spur business expansion and development in Andover, Tewksbury, and Wilmington.

"This is something everyone's been waiting for," said Lexington Town Manager Carl F. Valente, whose municipality will benefit from growth at Shire HGT, a biopharmaceutical manufacturer.

The grab bag of benefits comes as most cities and towns are struggling financially amid an economic slowdown. The package - a centerpiece of Patrick's economic program - includes $500 million for capital improvements over 10 years, $250 million in tax incentives for companies, and $250 million in grants. The expected jobs and eventual municipal tax revenue from stronger companies could help revive communities staggering under high costs and sagging receipts.

The law could bring tax breaks to Shire HGT, as well as flexibility needed for expansion at Andover-based Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. A nano- and bio-manufacturing facility at UMass-Lowell will receive a direct grant of $10 million authorized under the law.

The law requires certification as a life sciences project before a company like Shire can become eligible for tax credits. Once certified, though, Shire could obtain the credits related to construction at its Lexington facility, expected to bring 600 new high-paying jobs to town. Valente said Shire has already broken ground for the expansion.

Shire makes two drugs, Elaprase and Replagal, used to treat rare genetic disorders.

"This is a very smart investment, not only in the future health of the Massachusetts economy, but for health in general," said state Representative Jay R. Kaufman, a Democrat who represents parts of Arlington, Lexington, and Woburn. "It's very exciting."

Meanwhile, additional economic development could go to Andover, Tewksbury, and Wilmington, all near a proposed new I-93 interchange, with $12.6 million allocated under the bill toward its preparation for development. The new interchange, which conservative estimates put at a cost of $55 million, would provide another ramp to and from I-93 between exits 41 and 42 and could open up 700 acres of landlocked property.

The access is critical to Simon Property Group Inc., which wants to build a mixed-use complex in Tewksbury that some say could bring 12,000 new jobs to the area. But Simon has put its plans on hold until the state Highway Department develops a design for the interchange that could unlock the company's 60-acre property.

The shape of the interchange has been controversial in the three neighboring towns. Two of the three designs discussed among the communities are said to have the potential of clogging local residential streets.

State Representative James R. Miceli, a Democrat who represents parts of Tewksbury and Wilmington, said he is adamant that MassHighway officials take the towns' concerns into consideration. "Nobody is opposed to progress, but the rights of the abutters have to be respected," he said recently.

Tewksbury Town Manager David G. Cressman said, if configured appropriately, the interchange would be a boon to his town, which has been reeling under a projected $10.7 million three-year deficit.

However, Cressman cautioned that town residents should not count on new development filling the coffers.

"I've always said from day one on this whole project that it's not going to solve the budget problems tomorrow," he said. "This is part of a long, planned financial development package."

The interchange also could protect Tewksbury neighborhoods that otherwise might get an estimated 9,000 to 16,000 trucks rumbling through in the next few years during the cleanup of a nearby Superfund site at the former Rocco's landfill.

If the interchange were built, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which wants to grow but has been limited by choked commuter traffic patterns, could go forward with an expansion.

State Senator Susan C. Tucker called the I-93 grant a "win-win" for its potential to "open up huge economic development opportunities for the Merrimack Valley," while relieving traffic in Andover's neighborhoods.

"Obviously, if Wyeth wants to expand in Andover, that would be very welcome news," said the Democrat, who represents Andover, Dracut, Lawrence, and Tewksbury. "I think both the House and Senate recognize that sometimes the most important thing we can do for companies like Wyeth is to provide the basic infrastructure they need."

The grant to UMass-Lowell will be used for the first new academic building constructed on campus in more than 30 years. The proposed new $80 million facility, with state-of-the-art interdisciplinary research laboratories and prototype manufacturing space, would be home to an expanded Nanomanufacturing Center of Excellence and BioManufacturing Center. The field of nanotechnology deals with tiny particles.

UMass-Lowell chancellor Martin T. Meehan said the university "specializes in the kind of research that helps bring life-saving new drugs and new medical devices to the market, as well as the nanotechnology research necessary to improve drug delivery."

Meehan said the new investment is "critical . . . to help stimulate the life sciences economy."