Legislators OK $35M deal for tech center

06/15/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By REBECCA FATER, Sun Statehouse Bureau
Lowell Sun

BOSTON -- The nano and biotechnology facility planned for UMass Lowell crossed the threshold last night from pipe dream to blueprint.

Senate and House members signed off on a compromise last night that grants $35 million to UMass Lowell toward the construction of an $80 million building to house the development of technologies that experts say hold the key to creating jobs in the Merrimack Valley.

The money is part of a $457 million economic stimulus package designed to boost jobs and the economy across the state, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Sun. The House and Senate approved their own versions of the bill late last year, and conference committee members have spent the last eight months hashing out middle ground.

The Legislature is scheduled to take a formality vote today to accept the compromise and send the money on its way.

"This is not something we're chasing. This is not a dream," Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell, said last night. "The rest of the country is working on (nanotechnology), and we're passing this bill tomorrow."

The bill includes $21 million in cash for the project and another $14 million to be bonded by the state. It also authorizes UMass Lowell to borrow another $35 million. The university plans to seek the remaining $10 million of the $80 million cost from either the federal government or private fundraising.

The state's commitment to the project is a sign that Massachusetts is becoming comfortable with the once-foreign concept known as nanotechnology, science on a radically small scale.

"It was a tough sell originally, before we educated everybody on it," said Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, who sat on the conference committee for the economic stimulus bill and lobbied hard to increase fellow lawmakers' awareness about the role nanotechnology is likely to play in the future.

"It crosses all the product and industry sectors. You can use it for drug delivery, or paint on cars, or even creating faster, lighter ... memory (for computers)," he said.

The most important thing about the UMass Lowell facility will not be the research of nanotechnologies. Rather, its promise lies in the development of manufacturing processes and the training of students for quality-control jobs in manufacturing plants.

"Everybody thinks it's going to be scientists sitting around in white coats thinking great thoughts," said Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell. "Our center is designed to take those great thoughts and make them into processing and manufacturing methods."

The next step is to design the facility and choose a site in Lowell. If all goes well, the facility could be up and running within five years, Panagiotakos said.

Like Panagiotakos, who convinced the Senate's president and Ways and Means Committee of the benefits of nanotechnology, Lowell's representatives talked up science to House Speaker Sal DiMasi for months.

"It's going to put Lowell on the map as the birthplace of the next technological revolution," said Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell. "I'm very excited about it and I think it's a fantastic project."

UMass Lowell Chancellor William Hogan called the compromise "outstanding news."

"Through the construction of the first new academic building on campus in more than 30 years, the university will possess some of the essential resources that are vital to this campus and the region it serves," he said in a written statement.

The nano and biotechnology facility is part of a larger $266 million renovation plan UMass Lowell has proposed. It wants to split the cost halfway with the state: $133 million the university would bond, and another $133 million that would come from the state's coffers. But just because $35 million for the facility is secured doesn't mean the remaining $98 million of that request will be a slam-dunk.

The university laid out its plans to the delegation last April, but the topic hasn't surfaced since, said Murphy, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

"We have not even considered those additional plans," he said. "This was number one. We achieved this and then we'll sit down and look at the rest."

The nano and biotechnology facility is not the only boon likely coming to Lowell from the economic stimulus package. The conference committee agreed to the creation of a $13 million cultural facilities fund, which will offer matching grants to places like Lowell Memorial Auditorium for renovation. The committee also increased the available balance in the state's historic-preservation tax-credit fund from $15 million to $50 million. Those tax credits could be applicable to projects involving the city's old mill buildings, Panagiotakos said.

Rebecca Fater's e-mail address is rfater@lowellsun.com.