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Fidelity departure forces Marlborough to re-evaluate

March 31, 2011 – While Fidelity may be the latest business to pack its bags and take 1,100 jobs to Rhode Island and New Hampshire, the city, including Mayor Nancy E. Stevens, sees this as an opportunity to reinvent itself.

“It’s going to change our focus,” Stevens said. “When you look at the Fidelity and Hewlett- Packard parcels that constitute a very large area in terms of acreage and office space, we need to look at that as an opportunity. You only need one person or one company that needs something unique. And that could be what they’re looking for.”

According to Anthony Trodella, chair of the Marlborough Board of Assessors, the current Fidelity campus real estate taxes are $1.5 million.

Similar to a real estate agent who will research recent comparable sales within a residential neighborhood to set a selling price of a house, Trodella said the same is true in setting an assessment for commercial and corporate property.

“When they vacate the property next year, we don’t automatically drop the rate to zero. We look at the whole class of similar properties,” Trodella said, in regard to setting an assessment value even if the building is unoccupied.

“The truth of the matter is this was not unexpected,” he added. “They’ve [Fidelity has] been talking about this for four years. People knew it was happening. For everyone to now say, ‘Oh, my God, this is a total surprise,’ I don’t know where that’s coming from. This was not a surprise.”

Stevens wants to know Fidelity’s exit strategy for moving their employees.

“Will they move a lot of them at once or will it be gradual with a skeleton crew remaining?” she asked. “We need to know because it has an impact on the city and a trickle-down effect on the entire community.”

With Fidelity’s eventual departure, which will leave close to 1 million square feet of vacant office space, Marlborough will likely have a 30 percent vacancy rate, Trodella said.

“But it’s not a situation where the sky is falling. This is not something that will bring the city to its knees. Now you have to do some real planning and see how you’re going to counteract all the vacancies,” he added.

That planning rests squarely with the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation, its Executive Director George A. Ciccone and FXM Associates of Mattapoisett, the firm that has been chosen to come up with a Master Plan for the city to use as a blueprint in regard to developing new economic growth. A final report is due Sept. 15.

Although there are plenty of empty buildings in the city for rent or lease, future use of those buildings may be quite different.

“The business models of the 1970s and 1980s do not translate to this century,” Ciccone said. “You don’t see businesses looking for 400,000 to 500,000 square feet of office space. The flexibility of operations and communications today doesn’t fit that model any more.

“We’ve got to be prepared and have a plan in place when the economy does rebound. That’s why we have to have a dialogue with the commercial property owners [which will take place April 13 and 14 in a series of focus groups coordinated by FXM, and again in May with a public forum at Marborough High School].

“We might even look at starting an incubator here, where we can grow our own businesses.”

The sting of losing the Fidelity jobs to neighboring states has not been sitting well with state legislators.

“On the state level,” Marlborough City Councilor At-Large and State Rep. Steven Levy said, “it raises questions about the tax incentives and the lack of accountability.”

He said targeted industries, such as Fidelity and defense contractor and manufacturer Raytheon, have each saved at least 55 percent of their tax burden over the years because of state-endorsed tax breaks.

Fidelity did not receive any tax breaks from the city of Marlborough, according to both Trodella and Stevens.

“The problem there was that it was an ongoing tax break but there was only a five-year requirement of creating and maintaining jobs,” Levy said. “The five years came and went, but the tax breaks continued.

“My preference is that whenever we look at the general cost of doing business, instead of targeting industries, we lower the cost of doing business in Massachusetts in general. And we need to be more competitive. It used to be that we competed against North Carolina, now it’s our next-door neighbors. We just need to do a better job.”

Local merchants and ancillary businesses that depend on daily purchases or hotel stays have also felt the impact of a shrinking Fidelity.

“Fidelity has certainly been one of our very important and key accounts and we are surely going to miss their business,” said Helene Loiselle, director of sales, Marlborough Hampton Inn, 277 Boston Post Rd. West. “They’ve been a long-standing and great client of ours for many years.”

“Any company that leaves the area will have an effect on us,” said Laura Palmer, owner of Allora, 139 Lakeside Ave., (Rt. 20).

And according to Richard Skinner, general manager at the Marlborough Royal Plaza Hotel, “The whole hotel environment is sad to see them go. We’ve done a good deal of business with Fidelity. We’ve also seen business diminish but we didn’t expect they’d leave so soon.”

Mary Simone, general manager at the Courtyard by Marriott, 75 Felton St., summed up the current attitude of the city.

“Marlborough is where all of New England connects,” she said. “That’s the greatest part in marketing this city. There are a lot of things happening here. It’ll come around. We just have to be positive.”

This story originally appeared here