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Boosting city’s amenities seen as key to future

July 14, 2011 – Life sciences company CeQur Ltd. has 27 employees in Marlborough who have been commuting to work from as far away as Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island since the Swiss company came to the city 2 1/2 years ago. When those employees socialize, they go to Allora, a restaurant on Route 20 that faces Lake Williams.

“It’s close to our facility and it has good Italian seafood,’’ said Jay Warner, senior vice president of marketing and sales at CeQur, which develops insulin delivery devices. “It’s almost like our corporate restaurant.’’

CeQur’s after-work dinners don’t signal a resumption of the boom that brought scores of high-tech and financial firms to Marlborough in the decade before the economic downturn. But as that boom recedes into memory, members of the quasi-public Marlborough Economic Development Corporation think more professionals with a penchant for linguini and clams might be the best way to boost the city’s fortunes.

Late this month, the development agency is slat ed to unveil the draft of a master plan that a team of consultants has been preparing for months, according to the chairman of its executive committee, Arthur Bergeron.

Using hundreds of ideas floated in public forums, online surveys, and elsewhere, the plan will suggest how the city can continue to attract high-tech companies while also helping small, locally owned businesses that have been largely untouched by the city’s growth over the years, Bergeron said.

The goal is to promote livelier restaurants, busier shops, and other neighborhood amenities that might lure companies and their educated workers with disposable cash to the city, said Bergeron, who is a lawyer. “They want a feel that is diverse and walkable, a place where you can go to a bar and talk. We have that place. It’s called French Hill and downtown. Marlborough can be that place.’’

But even as leaders of the Marlborough business community applauded the development corporation’s goals, they expressed doubts. One of the owners of the Main Street Café, Mary Scott, said she’s watched over the years as big businesses blossomed on the city’s west side while downtown atrophied. Although she is a member of a committee charged with advising the corporation on improving downtown, she isn’t convinced that the master plan will tackle the issue.

“You’ve got some big tax money coming in from bigger industries and corporations that stick around. They help us all,’’ said Scott, who also leads the Marlborough Downtown Village, an association of roughly 20 local merchants. “I do have a little criticism. The big companies are good, but we’re not linked together. It almost seems like they are satellites.’’

Susanne Morreale-Leeber, president of the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce, is also skeptical. “I have been involved in three other master plans and not a whole lot has happened,’’ she said, though she added that the current plan is generating more buzz than previous efforts. “There now is a lot of steam behind this to get a lot of things done.

The master plan’s suggestions will focus on lowering taxes, zoning changes, and other issues that many blamed for the recent decision by Fidelity Investments to relocate 1,100 employees from Marlborough to New Hampshire and Rhode Island by next year, Bergeron said.

The plan has the lofty goal of increasing the city’s nonresidential tax base by $1.4 billion in the next 10 years, for example, or more than double the assessed value of all commercial and industrial property in the city today.

To hit that target, the city will need to attract smaller companies that eventually grow into giants, said Bergeron. “Economic growth in Marlborough is going to be tied not to finding the great company to come in and drop 10,000 jobs,’’ he said. “The idea is to have Marlborough be one huge incubator for companies.’’

But luring start-ups requires more than Marlborough’s traditional assets of ample space, inexpensive rent, and easy access to Interstate 495 and the Mass. Pike, said Bergeron. Smaller, growing companies will also consider the local atmosphere and other intangibles like those in other area communities serving as high-tech hubs.

“Everybody knows Cambridge, and everyone knows the Waltham-Lexington cluster, which is an extension of Cambridge,’’ he said. “No one knows us. There is no ‘there’ there. My goal is for people to say ‘Marlborough, oh yeah; that’s the other Cambridge.’ ’’

At a cost of around $165,000, the master plan is scheduled to be completed in September, said Bergeron, with the draft’s release this month giving stakeholders a chance to propose changes.

The city’s building commissioner, Stephen Reid, said he has pushed for the development corporation to recommend zoning changes downtown in order to promote mixed-used buildings, with stores on lower floors and residential space above. At present, the city’s zoning doesn’t allow for the arrangement.

Currently, Reid said as an example, the owner of a three-story building that burned down on Main Street last year can’t rebuild the structure in the same way without receiving special permits from the City Council and other boards, a hassle that stifles growth.

“Now is the time, with the new master plan, to craft regulations that will make downtown a desirable place to do these big investments,’’ he said. “Downtown has been sort of silent for a long time.’’

This story originally appeared here