News & Events

Amid economic bust, a boom at UMass

New academic buildings sprouting up all over, bringing much-needed jobs

By Robert Gavin

Globe Staff / July 25, 2010

WORCESTER — Every day, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., jarring explosions interrupt Kevin O’Sullivan’s phone calls, conversations, and meetings. It doesn’t bother him one bit.

O’Sullivan is president of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives, an economic development group here, and the blasts come from nearby University of Massachusetts Medical School, where excavation has begun on one of the largest building projects in New England. The $400 million science center is expected to create hundreds of construction jobs, attract millions of dollars in federal research money, and provide another catalyst to the state’s vital health science industry.

“It’s not just about Worcester,’’ O’Sullivan said. “If UMass accomplishes half of what they’ve set out to do, it’s going to bode well for the whole Massachusetts economy.’’

The science center is just one of several projects the UMass system is undertaking across its five campuses, and another sign of its growing impact on regional economies. Underpinned by rising enrollments, burgeoning research grants, and an increasingly entrepreneurial culture, UMass is doing what few other institutions or businesses are these days: building, buying, and expanding.

Over the past year, UMass Lowell has bought a failing downtown hotel, taken over a city arena, and begun construction of a $70 million emerging technologies center, its first new academic building in 35 years. UMass Boston recently snapped up the struggling Bayside Exposition Center at a bargain price, and in the coming year, will see construction begin on two new buildings at its Dorchester Bay campus. At its flagship Amherst campus, UMass has completed more than $300 million in construction projects over the past two years, and has $375 million more in construction underway.

This building boom comes as major projects from other organizations have been delayed or canceled, including Harvard University’s Allston expansion, the Filene’s redevelopment in downtown Boston, and Columbus Center in the South End. Needless to say, UMass is providing relief to a construction industry only beginning to recover from a recession that destroyed one in four of its jobs.

“From our perspective,’’ said Mark Erlich, executive secretary treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, “anyone who builds is welcome.’’

In Lowell, where construction of the university’s emerging technologies center is just getting underway, Turner Construction Co. of New York expects to issue up to 40 subcontracts to as many local firms as it can, and hire more than 100 on-site workers. In Worcester, the Berry division of Suffolk Construction Co. of Boston, the science center construction manager, says it will use about 30 Massachusetts contractors for the new research building, buy materials from local manufacturers and suppliers whenever possible, and average 200 to 300 workers on the site over the 2 1/2 years of the project.

With unemployment in construction trades running from 30 percent to 50 percent in the Worcester area, it cannot come too soon, said Mark Andrews, president of the Worcester-Fitchburg Building Trades Council. “We are desperate for that project to get going,’’ he said.


Robert Cabana of Springfield, a construction superintendent, was also desperate after being out of work for more than a year. Ten weeks ago, he landed a job on a roof and plaza replacement project at UMass Amherst.

“I was ecstatic,’’ Cabana, 55, said. “The bills have been piling up, and now I’m trying to catch up. When you’re unemployed, it’s awful.’’

Underlying all the construction is the university’s growth. State funding pays for 14 percent of this year’s $2.8 billion budget, down from 28 percent a little more than a decade ago. But since 2003, enrollment has risen nearly 15 percent systemwide, to about 66,000 students, while revenue from tuition, fees, and other non-state sources has doubled to $2.3 billion. Federal and corporate funding of UMass research has jumped 50 percent to nearly $500 million last year. Fees from licensing technologies developed at UMass nearly quadrupled to more than $70 million.

Just as important has been a cultural shift borne of dwindling state support. University officials say, they have had to take an entrepreneurial approach to make the most of available resources.

In Worcester, for example, state funding accounts for less than one-fourth of the new building’s price tag. The rest will be financed through bonds issued by the UMass Building Authority, and paid off with research money attracted by the school’s scientists and licensing fees paid for the commercialization of their discoveries.

In Lowell, UMass snapped up a struggling 252-room hotel for $15 million, about one-third of its appraised value, and invested another $5 million to renovate the building into an inn, conference center, and much-needed housing for its growing student population. Student housing fees and income generated from inn operations and conferences — which have already attracted some 23,000 visitors to downtown Lowell — are paying off the bonds that financed the acquisition and renovations.

“Years ago, the attitude was the state would provide,’’ UMass president Jack M. Wilson said. “Now, we’re taking a very business-like approach, and looking for people to come in with an entrepreneurial outlook, not an entitlement culture.’’

Wilson, who will step down as president next year, has that sort of business sense in his background. A physicist by training, he earlier spun a company out of his own research, raised capital to fuel its growth, merged it with other firms, and took the company public on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Ultimately, Wilson says, the economic impact of the university’s projects will extend beyond construction. The research coming out of the new facilities — whether nanotechnology in Lowell, biotechnology in Worcester, or green chemistry in Boston — will support the state’s innovation economy.

In Worcester, for example, a cluster of biopharmaceutical firms has grown around the medical school, including Abbott Laboratories of Abbott Park, Ill., which employs about 700 locally.

“The community of scientists is why we continue to be there,’’ said Tracy Sorrentino, a company spokeswoman, “and the new research center will be a big part of that thriving hub.’’

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, says UMass’s role as a catalyst is often overlooked, but its research and graduates, most of whom stay in the state, create “a very powerful combination’’ for the state’s economy.

“One of the keys,’’ he added, “is they’ve recognized that they have to master their own future, and steer their own course.’’

Robert Gavin can be reached at