The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council is about a week away from publishing its first-ever series of ratings designed to measure whether certain communities are ready to accommodate life-sciences companies seeking to relocate to, or expand within, the Bay State.
The council’s BioReady Communities Campaign is designed to guide not only life-sciences employers seeking a suitable community, but also municipalities seeking to draw the industry into their borders.
“Municipalities that participate really are helping Massachusetts become more competitive,” Peter Abair, the council’s director of economic development, told BioRegion News last week. “We’re very competitive now, of course, but this is sort of one of the knocks against us has been the speed by which projects can move, and we think this can help speed the process, and level the playing field versus other parts of the world and other states in the US.”
Abair said in an interview that the initial BioReady Communities list will contain ratings for about 30 cities and towns that have filled out surveys and submitted them to the council since the program got underway in the spring. A copy of the survey filled by municipalities is available here.
In an Oct. 28 interview with BRN, Abair said: “We’re doing our due diligence to verify those submissions at this point, and we probably in the next two weeks will publish our initial list of 25 or 30 communities that have been rated.
“The idea is not that we want to test these municipalities; we want to help them get to where they want to be, but we also want to give them a marketing tool, so that in fact they can say, ‘We as a community want biotechnology, we support the industry in our community,’” he said.
“Saying. ‘We’re an MBC Silver-rated BioReady community’ means something, as opposed to a prospect looking at a community and having to guess whether in fact they have the permitting, zoning, and inclination to host a biotech facility,” Abair said.
The list of BioReady communities will be updated periodically, and will be published on the council’s web site, available here; as well as the Massachusetts SiteFinder inventory of available sites for life sciences development, maintained by the private non-profit Massachusetts Alliance for Economic Development and available here.
“We’ll probably have an annual effort in terms of future surveys of municipalities, probably every fall given how we’ve done this initial one,” though municipalities are welcome to submit updated information any time, Abair said.
The council sent out its surveys in August to about 250 municipalities representing two-thirds of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns. Surveys were not sent to about 100 communities that lack access to natural gas.
Abair said local officials with questions on the survey should contact Melinda Moy of the council at [email protected]
From Bronze to Platinum
BioReady Communities uses a four-grade system to rate Massachusetts communities interested in attracting and retaining biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies.
Criteria for the BioReady ratings, from lowest to highest:
- Bronze: Communities have district municipal water and sewer services available in commercial and industrial areas. Zoning allows for biotech laboratory and manufacturing uses by special permit. An identified point of contact exists in the town or city government to assist life-sciences employers and their representatives.
- Silver: Communities meet the Bronze rating criteria, and in addition allow biotech laboratory and manufacturing uses by right. Buildings and/or land sites have been identified for biotechnology uses in their municipal plans. Officials convene site plan review meetings, bringing together all pertinent departments, to provide an overview of the local approvals process for significant commercial and industrial projects.
Communities rated as “Silver” have either identified land sites and/or buildings for life sciences use in the state BioSites inventory; or have been designated Priority Development Sites warranting fast-track review and decisions, under Chapter 43D of the General Laws of Massachusetts. In addition, Silver communities have at least one site designated by the state for redevelopment under the Massachusetts Growth Districts Initiative.
- Gold: Communities meet the Silver rating criteria, and in addition, their municipal boards of health have adopted National Institutes of Health guidelines on recombinant DNA activity as part of their regulations. Gold communities have has sites or buildings pre-permitted for biotechnology laboratory or manufacturing use, or have existing buildings where biotech laboratory or manufacturing activities are taking place.
“We’re recently come to view [the NIH rDNA guidelines] as something of the red carpet for biotech, because it does show a level of sophistication, a level of municipality understanding of what goes on in some of these facilities,” Abair said.
- Platinum: Communities meet the Gold rating criteria, and in addition include within their bordersone or more buildings that are already permitted for biotech uses, and have 20,000 square feet or more of available space for biotech uses or have a ready-to-develop “shovel-ready,” pre-permitted land site with completed Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act reviews, as well as municipal water and sewer capacity to meet additional demand.
The initiative, launched by Gov. Deval Patrick earlier this year, allows the state to join with local officials and property owners to coordinate local permitting, state permitting, site preparation, infrastructure improvements, and marketing of redevelopment sites.
Massachusetts has designated 11 Growth Districts statewide, according to the program’s web page, available here
— one each in Attleboro, Chicopee, Devens, Haverhill, Lowell, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Revere, Springfield, Weymouth, and Worcester.
The ratings sound similar to the certified, silver, gold, and platinum ratings used by the US Green Building Council in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED was not a factor in designing the council’s BioReady ratings, Abair said.
The council says it will talk with municipalities that lack the infrastructure cited in the BioReady ratings yet are interested in accommodating life-sci employers. One option, according to Abair, is housing sales or back office operations within existing commercial space.
The ratings effort also helps fulfill a key tenet of Massachusetts’ policy toward the life sciences industry — encouraging its continued expansion beyond the increasingly pricey Boston/Cambridge area, across all regions of the state. Yet the council says that was not the impetus for BioReady, noting that its figures show Cambridge and Boston being home to 129 life sciences companies, compared with 280 in the rest of the state.
‘Interested in the Industry’
Abair said the council has educated municipal leaders about the BioReady ratings, and the importance of attracting the life-sci industry, at six regional events statewide — one each in the Merrimack Valley region of northern Massachusetts, central Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley that includes Springfield, Mass., the area along the western side of Interstate 495, the Route 128 corridor, At each event, the council assembles as many municipal leaders as it can gather
“We’re going to do probably three, maybe four more of these regional events,” Abair said. At least one of these will be in the southern end of the state, which has not hosted any of the regional events to date, he added. “We’re trying to educate as many community officials as we can about what biotechnology is as an industry, and what its economic impact is, what goes on in biotech facilities, and also, give them some guidance about what they can do as municipalities to position themselves as biotechnology destinations.”
So far, Abair said, local officials have embraced the challenge of accommodating life-sci companies — and dispelling the longtime perception in industry circles that municipalities have been slow to embrace the industry.
“We found that the sophistication level of these municipal officials is pretty good. That they’re attending these events means that they’re interested in the industry, and generally speaking they have some kind of experience, or they’ve done some research in terms of what the industry is,” Abair said. “The education process doesn’t take too long. They’re hungry for information, and they’re, I think, eager, generally speaking, to really be destinations for biotech.”