MAIN STREET JOURNAL – Meredith Harris, Executive Director of Marlborough Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), was among seventeen women honored during the eighth annual Women of FIRE awards event last month at the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Boston. The Women of FIRE awards honor women who are making a difference in their profession, specifically in the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector.
The selection process for the awards was created by the Warren Group, publishers of Banker and Tradesman magazine. Nominees must be women employed in Massachusetts by any business or institution facilitating transactions for finance, insurance or real estate at any level.
Cassidy Murphy, an associate publisher for the Warren Group, would not describe the selection process for the Women of FIRE awards or disclose the number of nominees, but she did say, “We do get a lot of nominations and it is hard to choose. Almost all of them are outstanding in their field. What Meredith has done in Marlborough just stood out.”
Harris was accompanied to the awards event by MEDC Executive Administrative Assistant Linda Martins and MEDC Board members Dave Walton and Wes Tuttle. “Meredith is very personable, humble, and has great people working in the office backing her up,” said Walton.
During an interview with the Journal, Harris said it was humbling to be honored at the event and to stand alongside other women who were doing incredible things in the FIRE industries.
The MEDC executive director, age thirty, grew up in Norton, MA and earned her Master’s Degree in Public Affairs from UMASS Boston. Harris began her career as a Legislative Aide for State Representative Jay Barrows. She met her husband, Mike, while working at the State House and they were married in 2014.
The couple moved to Marlborough in 2015, shortly after Harris accepted a position at MEDC. They had no connection to the city and it was a difficult decision to make given their emotional ties to their respective hometowns of North Reading, MA (Mike) and Norton. But looking back, Harris feels it was one of the most positive, life-changing decisions she has ever made.
“Marlborough really is a unique place,” she said. “The energy you feel here is just different.” In her opinion, the city’s services and parks and recreation assets are second to none. “I think you can do a lot more in Marlborough than most people realize,” she said.
Harris originally applied to fill a pending vacancy in the mayor’s office as executive aid, but Mayor Arthur Vigeant thought she was a better fit to work at MEDC. She was subsequently hired in July of 2015 to work as the business outreach coordinator at MEDC and was promoted to executive director in August of 2016.
MEDC works to promote and market the city to attract both companies and visitors alike, with the goal of lowering the vacancy rate, providing a high quality of life and promoting Marlborough as an attractive place to live, work and play.
During her time at MEDC, Harris has worked with commercial real estate professionals, developers and tenants to create and implement programs and initiatives that have helped attract companies to Marlborough. As a result, Marlborough’s unemployment rate has fallen to a fifteen-year-low, and the commercial vacancy rate has dropped to a five-year-low. In the process, the city has added more than 1,000 new jobs.
One of the major initiatives Harris worked on shortly after coming to Marlborough is the MEDC “Toolbox,” which was subsequently launched in 2016. The Toolbox helps to defray costs through gap financing, tax reimbursements, rental assistance, beautification grants and amenities funding. Since its inception, the program has helped ten businesses open or grow in Marlborough, filling close to 65,000 square feet of commercial space, while retaining twenty-two existing jobs and creating 169 new jobs.
Harris also helped the developers of the Apex Center of New England navigate the city’s permitting processes. The project was able to go from planning to completion within less than two years.
In addition, she led a housing study for Marlborough that set in motion some changes in the city’s permitting procedures and, subsequently, led to the creation of a special permit checklist that will make it easier for new developers to navigate the system.
Harris says the economic development success Marlborough has achieved over the past several years is the direct result of teamwork and cooperation between the mayor, City Council, MEDC’s executive board and the MEDC staff.
Asked what is the next “big deal” on the horizon, Harris quickly replied, “French Hill.” The city is currently focused on land on the north side of Lincoln Street between the rail trail and Mechanic Street, essentially the eastern gateway to French Hill. About half that land is already under agreement for purchase by MEDC. Work is now underway to attract development for the entire parcel.
The hope is that redevelopment of the eastern gateway will spur further new development westward. Harris envisions a future French Hill that will be livelier and more pedestrian friendly. “I think we need one good project to make it come alive,” she said, “but we do have our work cut out for us.”
This article by Richard Chang originally appeared here.