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The Boroughs — a hot place for business

The Boston Globe- When Girish Navani, chief executive and cofounder of eClinicalWorks, surveyed his employees several years ago about where the company should build its new headquarters, their response was clear.

“It was overwhelming, stay in Westborough,” Navani said.

The company opened its new headquarters at 2 Technology Drive in 2011, adding around 175 jobs since the expansion. Westborough offered eClinicalWorks a small tax incentive to stay in town, but Navani said he could have gotten millions more to move his company to Georgia or Florida. Instead, he decided to stay in Westborough in part because it offers both proximity to Boston, and the predictable commute times and less expensive land prices of the suburbs.

“I think it’s perfect,” he said.
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Navani isn’t the only business executive to take notice of what “the Boroughs” — a four-community region consisting of Marlborough, Northborough, Southborough, and Westborough, clustered along Interstate 495 — has to offer. The area is booming with new and planned commercial development, and Gregory Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development, said it’s “one of the places to watch around the state right now.”

‘It turns out that people were waiting, waiting, waiting for the recovery, and then over the last six or nine months, you’ve seen bam, bam, bam, good news, good news, good news.’

“That 495 market, which includes the Boroughs, did get hit pretty hard by the recession,” Bialecki said. “There was a lot of vacancy in a lot of those buildings. There was some anxiety about, ‘Are we going to be a part of the state that participates in the recovery, or are we going to get left behind?’
“It turns out that people were waiting, waiting, waiting for the recovery, and then over the last six or nine months, you’ve seen bam, bam, bam, good news, good news, good news,” he added.

Marlborough, in particular, has hit the ground running, with three major businesses — TJX Cos., Quest Diagnostics Inc., and Boston Scientific Corp. — recently announcing moves or expansions in the city, bringing with them around 3,600 jobs. All three of those companies received tax-incentive deals that forgive some of the taxes on their new developments or renovations of existing buildings.

Westborough has also used tax increment financing — or TIF — plans to attract and retain business, reaching agreements with three companies, including eClincialWorks, over the past two years.
In Northborough, parts of the Northborough Crossing shopping center began opening in 2011, and the development has quickly become the community’s largest taxpayer, paying around $1.7 million into town coffers this fiscal year.

Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, said the region’s lower real estate prices compared with Boston’s are getting companies to look at the Boroughs. Also, he noted, around half of workers in the I-495 belt have a college degree.

“The skilled workers out here are a tremendous competitive advantage,” Matthews said. “Location is a tremendous advantage.”

“We have access to everything that Boston has, including the intellectual base that Boston has,” said Jim Malloy, Westborough’s town manager. “We have lower property values, a highly educated workforce, and access to interstate highways.”

Northborough Town Administrator John Coderre said his town is “in terrific shape” and that he’s had recent contact with businesses interested in developing there. “We continue to be a very desirable location,” he said. Coderre noted that businesses in town pay the same tax rate as residents, which is not the case for some communities with significant commercial development.

In Southborough, Town Administrator Mark Purple said his town “hasn’t done a great job” in the past of forging relationships with businesses, but that it’s now forming an economic development committee and overhauling its zoning to attract development.

Marlborough Mayor Arthur ­Vigeant said that while most of new commercial development in the area has gone to his city, there’s a general push among the communities to market the Boroughs as a good place to do business.

“If that means I attract [a company] to Marlborough, and they want to move to Westborough, as long as they’re adding to the regional consumption, it only helps all of us,” ­Vigeant said. “There’s definitely an effort on a regional basis to make sure that people understand that it’s a great region to live in.”

“I think our region collectively wants to be a competitor to Cambridge and Greater Boston and the 128 belt,” added Michael Berry, an aide to the mayor. “That’s what we’re trying to do out here. We’re certainly united by those things. I think each community offers something a little bit different, but the fact that each of us is having success with different businesses in different ways speaks well of the region as a whole.”

Tim Cummings, executive director of the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation, said one way the communities band together is by advocating for improvements to infrastructure, such as the major highways in the area.

“Essentially, it’s about understanding that when you increase the wealth of a region, all the other communities benefit from it in some way,” Cummings said.

Garry Holmes, president of a commercial real estate brokerage in Wayland, R.W. Holmes Realty Co., said Marlborough had been “devastated” by the recession. Until recently, vacancies for office space hovered around 34 percent — far above the 10 to 12 percent considered healthy, he said.
“One in three buildings were empty,” Holmes said. “That’s a pretty scary statistic.”

Now, Holmes said, the vacancy rate is down to around 27.5 percent, and he expects it to continue to drop. What’s more, he expects the impending development in Marlborough to be good for existing local businesses, and to spur more development throughout the region.

“What that does to all the surrounding hotels, restaurants, the residential market — it’s just going to have such a profound impact,” Holmes said. “More importantly, they’re not going to be deals that make any big headlines, but you’re going to see a lot of the contractors that these companies do work with . . . start to backfill office and industrial buildings.

“I think it’s great news for that area,” he added. “The trend that you’re seeing, a lot of that momentum is going to continue through this year.”

This story originally appeared here.