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North Andover

“WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!”

Apparent Horizon column North Andover MA collage

 

Moral panic hamstrings promising North Andover cannabis farm deal

 

February 6, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

 

Last fall, I wrote about the history of Osgood Landing—a large industrial facility in North Andover—as part of a column (“An Andover North Andover Deal?”) slamming a hasty bid to win the Amazon HQ2 contract put together by that town in partnership with nearby Haverhill, Lawrence, and Methuen. For decades, it had been a huge Western Electric manufacturing plant and AT&T research center, the storied Merrimack Valley Works—heavily unionized and employing over 12,000 area residents at its height. After the AT&T breakup in 1984, it began its downward slide. First under Western Electric successor corporation Lucent, then under French multinational Alcatel-Lucent—which killed the facility off completely by 2008. Blowing a hole thousands of jobs wide in the fortunes of a region that had already fallen far from its heyday as an industrial powerhouse between the 19th century and WWII.

 

A small company called Ozzy Properties bought the complex from Lucent in 2003 for a bargain-basement price at the time of its merger with Alcatel, and over the years has only managed to fill about 40 percent of its 1.8 million square feet with a grab bag of companies that together provide about 1,000 jobs and pay North Andover about a third of the $1 million in taxes a year on average that it used to get when Lucent owned the site, according to a 2017 North Andover Citizen article.

 

Well before town leaders decided to court Amazon to set up shop in part at Osgood Landing, its owner, Ozzy Properties’ Dr. Jeff Goldstein, had been floating a proposal to turn the unused 1.1 million-square-foot portion of the facility into one of the world’s largest indoor cannabis-growing farms.

 

After reviewing all the problems I thought that Amazon would be likely to bring to the area should the Merrimack Valley bid for HQ2 have prevailed (which we now know it did not), I closed my “Amazon North Andover” column by reminding the people of Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover to remember the advice recently proffered by their own regional planners:

 

[T]he 2013 Merrimack Valley Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy produced by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission stated, “The region’s best prospects for future economic growth are its local entrepreneurs.” Local entrepreneurs like the Osgood Landing owners, if they choose to start their marijuana farm rather than grab for the brass ring Amazon could offer them. A sustainable “growth” industry if ever there was one that could provide an estimated 2,500 good jobs to the region—two-thirds of which would not require college degrees. But it seems like local residents, perhaps with former Lucent employees in the lead, will now have to remind their elected officials. If not in lobby days and protests prior to an Amazon deal, then definitely at the ballot box come next election should such a disastrous initiative ever actually come to pass.

 

Fast-forward to last week and we find Goldstein trying to get his cannabis farm proposal passed by North Andover Town Meeting for the second time in under a year. Now projecting only 1,500 new jobs for the Merrimack Valley region, but upping the ante with a pledge to pay the town $5 million a year for 20 years—$100 million overall—for the privilege of doing business “around the corner” from where he lives. But the town meeting passed a ban on all recreational marijuana establishments instead. Preempting the planned vote on the bylaw changes needed to zone Osgood Landing for a marijuana business, and placing the future of Goldstein’s grand “Massachusetts Innovation Center” plan (which includes the farm and a medical cannabis “research campus”) in serious doubt.

 

Seems like an unfortunate outcome from this corner. And not just because of the usual fact-light, emotion-heavy prohibitionist antics on display at the latest town meeting dustup, according to multiple sources. For the kids, don’t you know. Who are busy getting baked as regularly as the parents who are now trying to “protect” them did when they were teenagers. No, I guess such behavior is only to be expected from North Andover’s still-robust contingent of downwardly mobile, middle-class burghers hoping to keep up bourgeois respectability by not becoming known as the “Pot Town” to some imaginary audience of tut-tutting social betters in Georgetown or Boxford or, god forbid, Andover—and which clearly had the effect desired by such retrograde anti-pot crusaders. Far better, apparently, to be known as yet another “Oxy Town” as they continue to fail to replace all the good jobs they’ve lost and turn to opiates to kill the pain of maxing out their last credit cards shortly before becoming homeless, am I right?!

 

But to my point, even if the planned cannabis facility ended up providing half the 1,500 jobs currently being promised by Goldstein and company—750 jobs—that would at least go most of the way toward replacing the 800 jobs and attendant tax revenue lost earlier in the decade when Converse and Schneider Electric both left North Andover (the former to Boston’s Seaport District, the latter to evil twin Andover). And while I’m not in the habit of suggesting that backing corporations as a municipal economic development strategy is any kind of optimal solution, at least Dr. Goldstein is offering to actually give $100 million to the town, rather than just trying to extract huge bribes from local government like most companies do when they set up shop pretty much anywhere these days.

 

Which is not to say that he hasn’t at least tried to benefit from government largesse before. He has, as when Osgood Landing was designated the Osgood Smart Growth Overlay District (yes, OSGOD, of all acronyms) in 2006. And there was supposedly a tax increment financing (TIF, aka a significant corporate tax break) plan of the type I often criticize attached to the district. But in a 2015 North Andover Citizen article, Selectman Rosemary Smedile was quoted saying the TIF wasn’t activated.

 

Regardless, it seems highly unlikely North Andover is going to find a better deal anytime soon. And certainly not with any company that has the kind of built-in market that an industrial cannabis concern would have in a state with a robust recreational market for the “demon weed.” What it will get instead is some version of the bad Amazon deal from large corporations that will demand millions in tribute from local and state governments before ever putting two sticks together anywhere near the town.

 

And that’s a shame. Now Goldstein will have to find a way to get some version of his proposal passed before his investors abandon him, or his clever idea for a modicum of municipal renewal (and a tidy profit to be sure) will go the way of most clever ideas. Into the dust heap of history.

 

While the teenagers of North Andover remain as stoned as ever.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

AN AMAZON NORTH ANDOVER DEAL?

Sketch of the Merrimack Valley Works plant at North Andover while under construction in 1955

Merrimack Valley pols courting the tech behemoth have forgotten recent history

Sept 26, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

A couple of weeks ago, I criticized the possibility of an Amazon Boston deal—on the grounds that most of the jobs it would provide would be for software engineers, not our struggling local working class. And that allowing a single company to build a 50,000-employee operation here overnight would give it way too much political economic power in our region. However, it’s not just Boston politicians who are hot to dump vast amounts of public funds on the huge multinational. Several other Massachusetts cities and towns are following suit.

Perhaps the strongest proposal of that group of entrants is coming from four municipalities in the Merrimack Valley region of the state: Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover. They are offering to broker a deal with the owners of the underutilized 1.8 million-square-foot industrial facility called Osgood Landing in North Andover. This could conceivably fit Amazon’s bill, although the site is not located in the midst of a major city. Which the company has made clear is a priority. Also at issue is that Osgood Landing’s owners have been working to build a giant marijuana farm on the site instead. But the siren call of ready corporate cash will likely be enough to change their minds given that they’ve already signaled their support for the new venture.

Lost in most of the media chatter about the drive to “win” the Amazon deal is the fact that Osgood Landing was once a Lucent plant—and the context of its shutdown is completely absent. Lucent was the successor corporation to Western Electric. Which was better known as the old AT&T’s manufacturing division. And the North Andover plant was once Western Electric’s Merrimack Valley Works. Which built the transmission equipment that kept the nation’s phone system going. The company set up shop in Haverhill and Lawrence during World War II—just as the region’s famed textile and shoe industries began to decline. In 1956, it opened the North Andover plant and consolidated its regional operations there, becoming the new dominant industry in the area.

Video: “AT&T Archives: In the Merrimack Valley” [1959] (hat tip to Ryan W. Owen’s website for the find)

The jobs at the Merrimack Valley Works were mostly unionized, and they raised thousands of local families into the ranks of the middle class. But the chaos following the federally ordered breakup of AT&T’s near-monopoly of the US telephone system in 1984 saw the plant’s workforce fall from over 12,000 at the height of the Western Electric era in the 1970sto 7,000 in 1991, to 5,500 under Lucent in 2001 (well into a quick collapse five years after taking over the Western Electric business)… to zero in 2008, after the French telecom multinational Alcatel bought Lucent in 2006 and ordered the facility’s shutdown. The plant itself had already been sold to current owner Ozzy Properties in 2003. Alcatel-Lucent ended up being absorbed by Nokia in 2016.

Ironically, this sad outcome was predicted by local policy experts. In 1991, according to the “History Corner” of the Lucent Retirees’ website, “the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission investigated what the potential loss of … the Merrimack Valley Works might cost the region. The study found that a worst case decline that eliminated the plant’s then 7,000 jobs would cost 15 Valley communities $880 million. Lost supply orders for smaller companies in the area would eliminate another 7,700 secondary jobs.”

That all came to pass by 2008. Compounding the damage already done by the loss of the other 5,000-plus jobs at the plant between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Lucent’s unions slowed but ultimately could not stop the destruction of thousands more good jobs in the Merrimack Valley.

Which highlights the problem of spending public money to attract giant corporations like Amazon. Big companies can change their plans at the drop of a dime. And, without the kind of government regulation and unionization that major companies like AT&T had to operate under between WWII and the 1970s, the promised 50,000 jobs can become no jobs in the blink of an eye. Because who’s to stop an anti-regulation, anti-union company like Amazon from shutting down an operation as fast as it sets it up in this era? No one. No one at all. And, naturally, regions that fall for this “jobs creation” shell game have no plan B.

One would think that political leaders in Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover, informed by their own regional planners, would remember such history and focus on more sustainable economic development options. After all, the 2013 Merrimack Valley Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy produced by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission stated, “The region’s best prospects for future economic growth are its local entrepreneurs.” Local entrepreneurs like the Osgood Landing owners, if they choose to start their marijuana farm rather than grab for the brass ring Amazon could offer them. A sustainable “growth” industry if ever there was one that could provide an estimated 2,500 good jobs to the region—two-thirds of which would not require college degrees. But it seems like local residents, perhaps with former Lucent employees in the lead, will now have to remind their elected officials. If not in lobby days and protests prior to an Amazon deal, then definitely at the ballot box come next election should such a disastrous initiative ever actually come to pass.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.