UMass Lowell plans $23M nanotech center at old mill

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By MICHAEL LAFLEUR

LOWELL- UMass Lowell will invest $23 million in a new center for research into nanotechnology manufacturing at the Lawrence Mills development.

The announcement marks a major shift in the direction of the university's portion of the mill redevelopment. Previously, UMass officials had targeted the 13-acre site sandwiched between the Tsongas Arena and LeLacheur Park for its Graduate School of Education.

Announced yesterday during a meeting of the Lawrence Mills Re-Use Committee, school officials argue the decision could make the University of Massachusetts at Lowell a major job-creation hub for years to come.

"Nanotechnology many people are calling it the next enabling technology," said Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, the re-use committee chairman. "It is that technology that is going to create jobs."

Nanotechnology deals with the engineering of products on a sub-microscopic scale for applications in fields such as biology, communications and computers. The National Science Foundation has estimated that the global market for nano-engineered materials could be worth $1 trillion and employ more than 2 million people by 2015.

The new center could ensure that the Merrimack Valley is able to tap that wellspring, said Frederick Sperounis, UMass Lowell's vice chancellor for university relations and development.

"By getting in early and attracting capital to us, it will enable us to capture a significant portion of those jobs," he said. "That's really why the university made the shift."

Already, Lowell's legislative delegation has won UMass Lowell a $5 million, three-year "Center of Excellence" grant to fund research of nanotechnology manufacturing processes.

That money should begin arriving in July, the start of the next fiscal year, Panagiotakos said yesterday.

In addition, UMass Lowell, Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire are collaborating on a joint proposal to the National Science Foundation for a three-year, $17 million grant to fund what the partners are calling the New England Nanomanufacturing Center.

University officials want to house the center in the Lawrence Mills complex's 70,000-square-foot McQuade Building on Perkins Street, which was formerly designated for the Graduate School of Education.

Around $800,000 has been spent on designs at the McQuade to fit the graduate school and the Lowell Demonstration School, which instructs city public elementary school children but is located off Princeton Boulevard in Chelmsford.

The graduate school is now located in a building on South Campus, which will become its permanent home, and the re-use committee which includes representatives from the city, UMass Lowell, the state Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) and Lowell's legislative delegation is in the process of finding a Lowell location for the Demonstration School.

"Nobody likes to sort of switch gears like this, but it's come to the point where we sort of see an opportunity," said Diana Prideaux-Brune, the university's vice chancellor for facilities. "What we thought was a temporary solution looks like it might be the best thing for the Graduate School of Education in the long term."

She argued that much of the design money spent to date can easily be applied to the new research center.

UMass Lowell has been earmarked $23 million in state funds to redevelop the McQuade and the mill's former administration building, located nearest the Tsongas Arena, which was to be turned into a faculty-alumni club. But yesterday, Prideaux-Brune said all the money must be invested in the McQuade, leaving none for renovating the administration building.

The university changes are not expected to affect plans by Boston development firm E.A. Fish and Associates to spend $25 million turning four buildings into 152 market-rate, loft-style condominiums, but other state-level delays may.

Under Fish's agreement with the state, which owns the Lawrence Mills, he will not close on his purchase of the four mill buildings until the DCAM hires a contractor for its $13 million plan to build a public park within the complex and upgrade the utilities feeding the site.

A contract was expected to have been awarded by last November, but was reportedly delayed by the state budget crisis and the winter weather. Fish has now agreed to close by April 14.

Yesterday, a DCAM official told the re-use committee that the agency would begin seeking bids for its portion of the project by April 14, but could not actually award a contract until June. It was unclear whether that delay would hold up the start of Fish's construction until June as well.

Even with the public and private development now planned for the Lawrence Mills, there are still three parcels left to be developed: The former administration building, the 125,000-square-foot Hub Hosiery Building, which is the complex's largest, and a vacant plot near Aiken and Perkins streets, across from LeLacheur Park.

The site was ravaged by a massive fire in 1987.