WILMINGTON, MA — Earlier this month, the Wilmington Board of Selectmen had a 2-hour discussion with Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, State Senator Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), and State Representative Ken Gordon (D-Bedford) surrounding the town’s current and future efforts to attract and maintain businesses.
There was one property, in particular, that kept coming up during the discussion — the Textron property at 201 & 205 Lowell Street. Textron laid off approximately 200 employees in 2016 and another 50 in 2017. After multiple rounds of downsizing over the years, very few employees remain at the once bustling Wilmington site.
“We have a 60-acre parcel of land, Textron, that’s downsized to about 50 people now,” Selectman Chair Kevin Caira told Ash, Tarr and Gordon. “This is going to be a concern for the community — how will that property get developed in the future if [Textron] decides to sell?”
“We don’t know what’s happening at this point in time with Textron. [Town officials] are having discussions with them to understand where they’re at,” added Caira. “But it’s 60 acres smack dab in a very attractive spot, right off of 93. Should would be looking at zoning changes now? Should we be talking to different developers?”
In response, Secretary Ash stressed the importance of encouraging economic development, suggesting the Textron site could be considered in a “high growth” area.
“Communities need to grow. You need more economic development,” said Ash. “Identify areas in town as ‘high growth’ areas. Preserve wherever is ‘special to you,’ but don’t shut out growth everyone else. You have great access to the highway. That’s where your high economic growth areas should be. And maybe farther into town, and farther away from the highway, are the areas where you want to discourage growth.”
Selectman Mike McCoy expressed his fear that the Textron property, which is currently zoned as ‘industrial,’ could eventually be rezoned to ‘mixed use,’ which would allow for both retail and significant amounts of apartments and/or condos on the site.
“That [rezoning] would change the makeup of this community forever,” McCoy told the delegation. “In Wilmington, we try to keep a country feel… It would be nice to try to maintain that small town feel that’s disappearing in other communities. Quality of life means a lot out here in the country, especially for those who moved from the city to the country to raise their families. How do we keep our small town feel?”
“You want to talk about country? I drive through 351 communities. You’re urban,” responded Ash. “I don’t know the Textron property real well, but if all of sudden Textron leaves, that could your top [economic development] opportunity.”
“I’m mindful of quality of life,” added Ash, “but if neighboring communities are building and building and you’re getting a lot of the traffic [and other negatives], it sounds like you’re trying to hold on to a day that’s already passed by… I acknowledge that you may want to create a growth zone in one location in town so you can purposely attain [no or little growth] in another location. But you need to find a zone where you can get the density you need and upzone.”
Selectman Jonathan Eaton is worried about the town’s prospects of following below the state’s 10% affordable housing threshold, which would open up the Textron site to a potential 40B housing project, which does not need to follow local zoning regulations. Such a project would be higher, bigger, and dense than what’s normally permitted in Wilmington.
“We’ve all mentioned Textron tonight and we’ve all mentioned it several times before,” said Eaton. “I do not want to get caught flatfooted. I’m very well aware of the census that is coming up in two years [which is when each community’s 40B numbers are recalculated]. The way to maintain local control is to be proactive and put a bunch of smart people in a room.”
“Our problems are big. We have issues of Sonic and issues of Textron. It’s a very wide range of problems,” chimed in former Selectman Mike Champoux, who has been a longtime advocate of the town’s increasing its economic development efforts. “Sometimes when you look at an elephant, where do you start? Well, let’s just pick one and go. Let’s start to deveolop some partnerships with those land owners and see what we can do. Let’s have some discussion with the Textron folks. And let’s make sure to keep [our legislative delegation] is in the mix.”
Selectman Greg Bendel added that Town Manager Jeff Hull has been updating board members on the status of Textron on a regular basis.
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