A commercial real estate broker told participants in a recent virtual seminar that there are communities who don’t understand the life sciences industry, and “one of the challenges municipalities are going to face is selling it.”
The speaker was Demetrius Spaneas, president of Land and Sea Real Estate of Andover. He presided at a forum called “Life Sciences and the Move to the Suburbs,” sponsored by the Middlesex 3 Coalition.
And one of his three panelists was an expert who doesn’t have to sell to her community – she is selling the community to prospective corporate taxpayers.
Bedford Economic Development Director Alyssa Sandoval emphasized the importance of streamlined permitting, facilitated by a new state law that benefits projects of at least 50,000 square feet.
“There’s a single point of contact for the company and a development review team already set up that meets with the applicant at the very beginning,” she explained. “It is really helpful, especially when you looking at larger developments. This is a symbol that we are serious” and it provides “a competitive edge.”
“We are seeing a lot of conversion of older industrial buildings one story, two at the most, to laboratories,” Sandoval said. “And we are making sure that permitting is set up to facilitate that.”
“Our Board of Health follows National Institutes of Health guidelines and biosafety regulations,” she continued. “Highlight the areas where you are looking to have more development, where it is appropriate for life sciences. We find pretty much all of our industrial zones are appropriate. We feel there are plenty of checks and balances on life sciences.”
After new companies set up, Sandoval continued, towns should help them get access to resources – commuter shuttles, job training programs, workforce development. Middlesex Community College is another choice. “It’s not just the beginning stage but helping them thrive.”
“It is so important to have a reputation that ‘we are welcoming here,’” Spaneas commented.
“We hear they want not just individual workers but for corporate events,” Sandoval commented. This is manifested in mixed-use permitting in the Crosby Drive area, and several restaurants have opened in the past few years, she said.
Workers at firms on Wiggins Avenue “really like having access to the Minuteman Bikeway. A lot of biotechnology workers seem to be avid cyclists,” she said, adding that the Planning Board encourages bicycle racks and shower facilities, as well as child care.
Panelist Dr. Jared Auclair made the case for the safety of life sciences facilities. “We are highly regulated. Everything we do is 100 percent safe. Our biowaste is taken care of properly. All of our staff is super trained.”
Auclair directs the executive training and biotechnology programs at Northeastern University’s Innovation Campus in Burlington. “If you don’t have a safe and clean lab you are not going to be able to produce any products and go to market,” he said. “We want to keep ourselves safe and we take the same approach with the community.
He defined biotechnology and life sciences as “using live cells to create a product, in most cases a drug. It’s about making safe and effective drugs, understanding human biology and disease. It is all about improving quality of life.”
Auclair observed, “Communities should understand that we are working with what we know today. The industry moves fast and we don’t know what’s coming next. So we need flexibility on rules. We have to adapt—look, we weren’t making Covid vaccines a year ago. Facilities need to change on a dime.” He encouraged “openness to conversation. We are your neighbors, your partners.
Another panelist described the construction challenges inherent in the industry. Jay Sturdivant manages projects in specialty labs and cleanrooms for Erland Construction of Burlington.
Sturdivant said his firm finds a preference form “a campus-like atmosphere, with open space, opportunities to meet with peers. People want to walk across the street to a bar or restaurant. Most people want to work in a nice open lab and not at one widow at the end of a bench.” Construction is increasingly modular, he said, allowing management “to move one group from place to place.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763
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