EDITORIAL: Worcester Manufacturing a Sector for the New Millenium

Gov. Charles D. Baker Jr.’s signature on Friday on legislation authorizing the transfer of state land on Belmont Hill, just up from the Massachusetts Biotech Research Park, has put Worcester on track for launching a new manufacturing sector that promises to bring up to 500 quality jobs and more to the city even as it expands the area’s biomedical portfolio.

Success has many parents and the list is long and shows an impressive commitment on local and state levels in an auspicious merger of two threads. The first was the vision for seeing an opportunity to serve a burgeoning biomedical industry in the Boston area, and the second was the Baker/Polito administration’s Open for Business initiative for transferring underused state property for economic development and other purposes.

While Kevin O’Sullivan, president and CEO of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives, modestly defers credit to others, this particular use of the 44-acre parcel being transferred came from an insight on how to fill a need of biomedical developers in the Boston-Cambridge area. Most biomedical research operations developing new “molecules” – which seems to be the operative word – must travel great distances to find a facility to develop, first, batches for testing and trials and then, even venturing overseas for large-scale manufacturing. With Boston-area real estate at a premium, it doesn’t make sense to build manufacturing capacity there. And while efficiencies and scale for major manufacturing are in places as distant as Asia, Worcester is perfectly positioned, literally as well as economically, for smaller batch biomanufacturing for clinical trials and next-step development. The city has lower costs, an existing biotech and biomedical footprint, and is just a short hop away from Boston.

About a third of the jobs to be created involve Ph.D.-level staff; a third involve bachelor’s or master’s degrees; and a third high school, including vocational school, level training. It’s a niche that Worcester is uniquely qualified to fill, according to Timothy P. Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Carefully managed, the win-wins are impressive:

  • State-owned, largely dormant properties, would move onto the tax rolls, which is welcome news amid Worcester’s annual tax rate debates that pit residential and commercial interests and bump up against the fact that roughly 30 percent of Worcester’s property is tax exempt.
  • High-quality jobs would be created at all levels in a new biomedical manufacturing industry. It’s a seed for new millennium manufacturing, a driver for good paying jobs that once were a staple here when Worcester was an industrial and manufacturing giant and that helped support a community.
  • An opportunity exists to serve as well as help grow a biomed sector with impacts not just in Worcester but in the state as a whole. With its proximity to research companies, it can help speed development cycles even as it helps keeps down costs, potentially spurring more development.

The Baker/Polito administration’s Open for Business initiative encompasses opportunities ranging from housing, including affordable-rate housing, to job creation, recreation and open space, and even just getting expensive to maintain underutilized property off the state’s hands. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said Friday’s signing is just the second such project in the state, the first outside Boston, and will save the state about $700,000 in annual maintenance costs for existing buildings and property. The legislation sailed through in special session shepherded by state Rep. James O’Day, D-West Boylston, and state Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester.

The Worcester Business Development Corp., acting as developer, has been working with LakePharma Inc. of Belmont, California, which would be the first to come, assuming current negotiations are successful, according to Craig Blais, the WBDC’s president and CEO. LakePharma would build a 50,000-square-foot research and manufacturing facility with a 2018 opening date for providing protein and antibody-related development services for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. It would employ the first 150 people.

Assuming everything lines up, it’s an important start, potentially of something big.