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At least 40 companies moved and expanded to this small Massachusetts city in 2017 and it’s not just because of the location

At least 40 companies moved and expanded to this small Massachusetts city in 2017 and it’s not just because of the location

MASSIVE – Rick Lombardi was drained by the drive.

The former newspaperman had worked in Boston for a decade, much of it spent handling public relations for the environmental affairs office under Gov. Bill Weld and his successor, Paul Cellucci.

But as is the case for many Massachusetts residents, the daily weekday trips in and out of Boston were brutal. Lombardi’s last Boston-based job was with the Suffolk County sheriff’s office.

“After 10 years of commuting, it was just too much,” he says now. “My kids were getting older, I was just tired of always being on the road.”

His business plan on what to do next took about two years to create. Inspired by what he’d seen in Boston — the popularity of wine shops — he opened his own in downtown Marlborough.

The commute, of course, improved instantly: Lombardi, who grew up in Worcester, had been living in Marlborough since 1982, when he was 26 years old.

He had fond memories of the city: Before Interstate 290 was built nearby, his mother used to work at the Raytheon plant in Sudbury, and Lombardi remembered Marlborough’s mix of urban and rural, not to mention the old apple orchards.

Lombardi opened “The Vin Bin” in 2004, as American wine consumption was on the rise. He found a spot next to what is now a seafood restaurant and a Starbucks. In 2011, he moved The Vin Bin across the street to a 1909 building that once housed the city’s police and fire departments. The words “CENTRAL FIRE STATION” are still on the front of the building, above The Vin Bin’s sign.

After the fire department moved out in the mid-1990s, the city poured $1 million into overhauling the building’s electrical, plumbing, and venting systems. The Vin Bin became its first tenant, after the city sold off the building, and now shares it with a Planned Parenthood health center.

The big bay doors that fire engines used to tear out of have been refurbished, now a light blue color that matches the slightly deeper blue umbrellas shading diners on the small patio. Inside, before you get to the café and the rows of wine, whiskey and craft beer, there’s a fireman’s hat and a wooden sign that says “HOSE No. 1,” a nod to the past.

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Marlborough is at a crossroads. That’s not just a figure of speech.

If you stand on the corner of Main Street and Bolton Street, where The Vin Bin is, Boston is about 30 miles east. Worcester is about 20 miles west.

Head northwest, and you’ll eventually hit where I-290 and I-495 meet. Go southwest, there’s the Mass. Turnpike, the easy-on, easy-off road that drew so many high-tech companies to the area.

“I’d love to think it’s because of me and the city council, but realistically it’s about the location,” quips Mayor Arthur Vigeant.

“I think we have a lot to offer and we’re willing to work with people,” he adds. “But location is the No. 1 decision-maker.”

Before the high-tech companies, shoe manufacturing was the big thing driving the local economy.

According to the Marlborough Historical Society, there were 17 shoe factories in operation in 1860.

Three years later, John Frye opened a shop in Elm Street, and in 1899, his company became the first in the area to convert its factory from steam to electricity. (It’s now a globally recognized brand, The Frye Company, with shoe stores in New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C.)

“Marlborough always had a lot of industry. Even a hundred years ago, when it had the shoe industry,” Lombardi says.

“From that mentality and culture, it attracted the new industries,” he adds.

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In 2017, at least 40 companies moved or expanded in Marlborough, bringing with them 450 jobs and taking over more than 300,000 square feet of commercial space, according to the city’s economic development arm.

It’s not just companies. Between 1950 and 1990, Marlborough’s population jumped to 31,800 from 16,000 people, the historical society says. The current population stands at about 40,000.

Meredith Harris, who grew up in Norton, a small town near Taunton, bought her first home in Marlborough not long ago.

She previously worked at MIT, on the team behind the redevelopment of Cambridge’s Kendall Square, a neighborhood that once had distilleries, power plants and candy factories and now is overstocked with tech companies and outposts for giants like Facebook and Amazon.

Mayor Vigeant came calling and Harris went to work for the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation in 2015. She’s now head of the entity tasked with selling and promoting the city, enticing current and future employers with financing and incentives, as well as keeping the tax base stable so residents aren’t bearing too much of the burden.

Her predecessor had brought in the big fish like Boston Scientific and a “west campus” for Framingham-based TJX, which owns TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. When Harris started, she focused on retention and expansion, big and small.

Harris says her team checks with existing companies and asks how things are going. How are the employees doing? Do they need anything?

“Through that process we’ve learned a lot about what these types of corporations are looking for,” she said.

For Harris, it’s not just about retention. Marlborough continues to draw employers like Whole Foods’ North Atlantic regional headquarters, which moved into the same building that houses GE Healthcare Life Sciences and Quest Diagnostics.

Building that ecosystem that includes big and small companies is key, according to Harris. “They love the fact that there’s other smaller, mid-size companies doing similar things,” she says of the big companies.

Holographix, a tech manufacturer, moved from Hudson to Marlborough in 2017, bringing itself and 30 new jobs to I-495. Allegro, which makes computer circuits, is moving to Marlborough after a 53-year stint in Worcester.

The tight housing market in the Boston area has driven more and more residents to Marlborough and the surrounding communities, and the companies are aware of that, according to Harris.

“You’re starting to see, in general, people are coming west, because the prices in the Greater Boston area, you can come out here and get the same type of product for a fraction of the cost,” Harris says. “Companies are starting to realize that.”

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