By Bill Kirk
---- — Although much of town is developed — some might even say over-developed — one local committee is looking for new opportunities to expand the commercial tax base by bringing in new businesses and attracting new jobs, which in turn will draw new families to live and work here.
The Economic Development Council is hosting a summit of sorts next week to brainstorm ideas to keep Andover’s economy rolling.
“The fundamental reason to have the forum is to open up and continue a dialogue on why economic growth is good for the town,” said Timothy Vaill, chairman of the EDC, which was created following a recommendation in the town’s 2012 master plan and reports to the Board of Selectmen.
The first in a series of forums, next week’s event focuses on how economic development is good for parents with school-age children as well as senior citizens who may not realize the importance of economic development, Vaill said.
“We want to broaden the dialogue beyond the business community,” he said.
The forum is scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20, in the Safety Center at 32 North Main St. It will feature four speakers/panelists, including Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston.
Bluestone will speak for about 30 minutes on economic growth and demographic issues affecting the town. He will also reveal some data about surrounding communities that are also trying to woo businesses by providing tax incentives and zoning districts to make themselves more attractive.
Other speakers include Greg Sebaski, chairman of Philips North America; Claudia Bach, former superintendent of Andover schools; and Charlie Kendrick, the former chairman of the Edgewood Retirement Community.
Sebaski will bring a perspective as the second-largest employer in town, while Bach will discuss why economic development is important for the improvement of local schools. Finally, Kendrick will link the importance of a strong economy to the elderly and talk about “why economic growth is good for them,” Vaill said.
“The mission we have is to make this town the best place to live and work,” Vaill said. “It’s a whole list of things — the best schools, parks and recreation, roads and facilities.”
With other communities pursuing the same mission, Andover can’t risk losing the foundation it has already established, he added.
“We have a wonderful economic base and strong employers, but if we don’t stay competitive, we won’t have that going forward,” he said.
In Andover, one way to secure a strong future has been to create zoning districts that allow for nontraditional uses of former manufacturing sites.
The so-called ID-2 zoning, or Industrial District-2, rezoned commercial property on River and Dascomb roads earlier this year so that in addition to traditional uses such as offices and light manufacturing, the area could attract grocery stores, restaurants, health clubs, medical facilities and other amenities that could be used by workers in the West Andover section of town.
“The reason we did that is that other towns are offering that,” Vaill said. “That was a very important vote. We are looking forward, over the next 10 or 15 years — we want to keep companies like Phillips Medical and Raytheon here.”
Already, that rezoning has borne some fruit as Restaurant Depot, which sells supplies to small- and medium-sized restaurants, has proposed opening up in a portion of the old Brockway-Smith building at 146 Dascomb Road.
“That sets the table for other opportunities down there to move forward on that site,” Town Planner Paul Materazzo said. “That’s an old warehousing facility that has new life on that site.”
He said there have been a “number of development teams looking closely at that property” as well as others in the new ID-2 zone. So far, however, only Restaurant Depot has filed plans.
Vaill and others, meanwhile, are also keeping their eyes on the Town Yard, currently occupied by the public works and water departments in a downtown area near the train station.
“All of us want to see something happen with the transit-oriented district down by the Town Yard,” Vaill said.
A vote to rezone that property failed narrowly at the last Town Meeting. And there has been little discussion by the Board of Selectmen, or anyone else, since.
Vaill, however, is hopeful that the town yard issue comes up again.
Materazzo, meanwhile, is still waiting for direction from the Board of Selectmen on whether to again advance the rezoning the site.
Meanwhile, the private market is already making inroads in that neighborhood.
Ozzy Properties of North Andover recently purchased an old mill building at 18-20 Red Spring Road that it intends to transform from a traditional manufacturing site to a mixed use of retail, residential and office space.
“We will see development activity on the peripheral around the station, but now we are waiting to see what the selectmen and town’s plans are — will we pursue it or leave it as town yard?” Materazzo said. “From a planning standpoint, it would make sense, but we need to wait to see what the political leaders want to do.”