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Riding a wave

WORCESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL – For Marlborough, recent months have brought an avalanche of good news. Boston Scientific and Quest Diagnostics brought their operations to the city this summer. In August, General Electric named the city as the new headquarters of its health care and life sciences division, and that announcement was followed almost immediately by a confirmation that a developer would build a new Hilton Garden Inn hotel to serve the city’s tech sector.

This month, Quest Diagnostics officially opened its "Lab of the Future" in Marlborough

Other ventures, including RXi Pharmaceuticals and IPG Photonics, have also found new locations in the city.

If you’re in a nearby community, all these wins next door could start looking a little intimidating. But officials and business leaders in neighboring towns say the activity is good for the region as a whole, and, if anything, Marlborough’s progress offers clues about what they can do to support business development in their own communities.

“A lot of people do view this as a competition,” said Francisco Torres, economic development coordinator for Westborough. But, he added, he’s thrilled to see the addition of new employers close by. “It’s only going to strengthen this region,” he said.

Torres, who was hired in April to a new position supporting the town’s economic development committee, said he wants to bring a regional focus to the local efforts, emphasizing the way neighboring communities can benefit from each other’s successes. He said Marlborough’s creation of its own development committee was a model for Westborough and other communities. Westborough, meanwhile, has had its own recent — and highly publicized — success with biotech giant Genzyme’s decision to open a 500-person office in town, moving employees from Framingham.

Bouncing back

In a way, Marlborough’s development efforts were born out of necessity. The big corporate office spaces being filled now were available only because of the loss of Fidelity Investments and Hewlett-Packard in previous years.

“Marlborough certainly had taken its lumps,” said Michael Berry, executive aide to Mayor Arthur Vigeant.

Berry said the accessible, attractive locations helped bring in companies, helped by the economy’s gradual recovery and a strong pro-growth mentality among city leaders.

Tim Cummings, executive director of Marlborough’s Economic Development Corp., said collaboration by elected leaders, department heads and local businesses several years ago helped produce a master plan and strategies to promote a good business climate. He said one of the keys has been not just recruiting new businesses but working with current employers to make sure their needs are being met and that, if they have the opportunity to expand, they will do so in the city.

But, like Torres, Cummings said he doesn’t feel a sense of competition with neighboring towns.

“The world’s a lot bigger than just MetroWest,” he said. “What we would like to believe is it’s a regional approach and we all have our parts to play. And we’re doing our part.”

Each community in the area has its own set of needs when it comes to new development. As of the second quarter of the year, Marlborough had the highest office vacancy rate within MetroWest495, with 22 percent of its 6.9 million square feet unoccupied, according to real estate data firm CoStar Group. Westborough followed at 20.8 percent, though its total office space is only a quarter of Marlborough’s. The only nearby community with more office real estate is Framingham, and its vacancy rate was well below Marlborough’s, at 11.4 percent.

“Unlike Marlborough, we don’t have the same kind of space gaps to fill,” said Arthur Robert, Framingham’s director of community and economic development.

Without the large empty corporate campuses waiting for new occupants, Robert said Framingham is looking at opportunities to fill unused spaces within central city areas. For example, he said, Framingham would like to take advantage of its well-used downtown commuter rail station with more transit-oriented development in that area of town. He said Framingham is actively working with regional planning authorities to promote the development of high-density, mixed-use projects in appropriate locations.

Robert said Framingham has also designated spots off the town’s two exits off the Massachusetts Turnpike as expedited permitting sites, easing the way for a developer that wants to locate there. It’s also working on a new marketing program and, in June, the town held an event for its businesses to share information on policies designed to support them.

“I think the town of Framingham is looking to ensure that the business community understands we’re here, we’re engaged,” he said.

In fact, Robert, who was hired last year, brings a new, business-focused approach to his position. Previously, he worked for the state’s offices of travel and tourism and economic development. The town created a separate new planning director position when it hired him, allowing him to focus more specifically on business development.

“I think the town is very interested in having a capacity and having the expertise to engage with businesses, and that’s what I certainly bring to the team,” he said.

High-tech pursuits

Meanwhile, Patrick Reffett, Natick’s community development director, said there’s no doubt there can be some rivalry among neighboring cities and towns.

“Communities do feel a certain level of jealously when they see, shall I say, a ‘trophy’ (company) that is deciding to relocate,” Reffett said.

Reffett said Natick is pleased to see MathWorks, which has two campuses in town, grow its presence. That’s particularly important after the loss of Boston Scientific, which decided in 2012 to consolidate and move its headquarters to Marlborough.

Reffett said Natick is working to attract more high-tech businesses, including biotech and biomedical companies. One move it’s making is pushing the owners of industrial buildings to adapt them for those sorts of uses.

David McCay, who is chairman of the Southborough Economic Development Committee and chairman-elect of the Marlborough Regional Chamber of Commerce, said different communities have different needs.

“Marlborough had large corporate headquarter-type facilities to fill,” he said. “Southborough just didn’t have those types of vacancies.”

But McCay said the regional view of development makes sense. “I really do view it, from Southborough’s perspective, as everything that’s happening in Marlborough is good for the region and that includes Southborough,” he said. “What we find is that companies in a particular industry sector like being co-located with other companies in that sector … There’s competition on a certain level but there’s also a lot of collaboration that goes on. They view it as an advantage.”

Local officials said another advantage that spills across municipal borders is spending by the employees of new corporate offices.

In Hudson, a considerably smaller community than Marlborough with less than a tenth of the office space, Community Development Director Michelle Ciccolo said there’s not much space to recruit a big corporate headquarters. Intel is already a significant presence in town (in spite of the recent shutdown of manufacturing operations there), and there aren’t huge swaths of empty space along Interstates 495 and 290 that are sitting empty.

Ciccolo said corporate growth in Marlborough supports other kinds of economic activity in Hudson, including a vibrant group of downtown restaurants, retail shopping along Route 9 and attractive housing.

“We see it as sort of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ ” she said. “Every community has its own character, and we have a very good mix of commercial and residential already.”

Louis Stephan, president of the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, echoed that sentiment when it comes to the effects of the Marlborough boom.

“A lot of those people are living in surrounding towns, shopping in surrounding towns, eating in surrounding towns,” he said.

With an office vacancy rate of just 1.7 percent, Sudbury hasn’t been hyper-focused on adding new employers, Stephan said. Raytheon has been a big part of the local economy for decades, and companies like Staples Industrial and Method Machine Tools also provide employment and tax revenue for the town. But Stephan said that’s no reason not to keep pushing to attract more companies.

“I think we could do maybe a little bit of a better job and have some more successes,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re lacking, either.”

This article originally appeared here.