By Jack Spillane
March 09, 2014 5:51 AM
This past Friday, Tom Davis and I took the latest in a series of drives that we’ve made over the years through the New Bedford Business Park.
It’s a handsome park, with more than a few high-tech plants set in an idyllic, heavily-wooded campus. But the thing that always impresses me the most is the cars. The SUVs and the family sedans, the pickup trucks and the vans. The automobiles, parked in neat rows in well landscaped lots, have always to me been the symbols of the New Bedford park’s success. They spell middle class and stability, a different world than much of inner city New Bedford where the many empty factories and crumbling buildings stir other emotions.
Many of those SUVs and sedans at the park are owned by people who do blue-collar work. They labor on assembly lines, some of them performing very high-precision assembly. They punch clocks and they make industrial products like artificial knee machines or electrolytic capacitors, even something as specialized as the insignias on ball caps. They do this work for good wages and benefits.
These men and women possess what many do not in 2014 America: manufacturing skill.
They get up in the morning and drive to work and put in a set number of hours and in return they receive a living wage. This is not McDonald’s or the Dartmouth Mall, this is industrial America.
The New Bedford Business Park over the past 15 years has made a remarkable turnaround.
When Tom Davis arrived in 1998, the park was a poorly kept, sleepy facility where the two of the largest three tenants —Titleist and Johnson & Johnson — were considering leaving for out of state.
Titleist has since expanded five times and Johnson & Johnson expanded three times before selling to Symmetry Metals, which has stayed in the park.
Since Davis, a former Exxon executive with no real estate experience, came on board, the park has grown from 18 companies to 45.The number of employees has increased from 1,500 to 4,500.
With sales revenue of $2 billion a year and an annual payroll of $250 million, and $2.2 million paid in annual property taxes to New Bedford ($600,000 to Dartmouth), the New Bedford Business Park is one of the most important economic engines on the SouthCoast.
No, it is not the single largest employer like Southcoast Hospitals and no, it’s not the city’s most iconic industry like the scallop fishery. But the park, which is now the second largest industrial park in Massachusetts, is a hugely important part of the local economy. In some ways, it seems the one large manufacturing operation that looks forward in Greater New Bedford.
The man who made the Business Park a success is, of course, Mr. Davis, who announced his retirement as the head of the business park earlier this week.
He’s a funny guy. Hardworking and incredibly smart, he’s also a tough interview. Tom Davis knows the points he wants to make and reporters are on his agenda as much as they are on the newspaper’s.
Davis is a man of wide interests and he’s also made a big impact on the turnaround of the New Bedford public schools. He’s also been a player in other real estate efforts outside the park and presently has his eye on what could be a game changing economic development in the inner city. More about that in future papers.
Probably the biggest reason Tom Davis has been successful at the business park is that he has delivered what expanding businesses want — easy construction and/or renovation. He has managed to accomplish the full permitting of major developments in as little as 30 to 60 days.
Asked how he does it, Davis said he always goes to the top of the food chain first, before he enters the minefield of municipal permitting boards. In other words, he first works the chairpeople of the planning, zoning and conservation boards and the mayors. Davis is one of the few major players in the city who has had excellent relationship with three very different mayors in a row: Fred Kalisz, Scott Lang and Jon Mitchell.
Another key achievement at the Business Park, under Davis’ leadership, is what’s called state “master plan approval.” At great expense and effort, Davis has managed to win master plan approval for all developable lots in the New Bedford park from every necessary state agency. So there’s never a lengthy or expensive development process.
Davis’ also emphasizes that he’s only sought quality companies for the park — businesses that pay above average wages and benefits and that do not contaminate the environment.
As Davis heads to an active retirement — he plans to stay involved both inside and outside the park — there’s a limited number of developable plots left at the 1,000 acre campus.
But there’ll always be important turnover decisions to be made as companies come and go and Davis has arranged so the new board of directors of the park are all park stakeholders. That will keep the park’s needs first and foremost, he says.
You don’t have to worry about Tom Davis remaining an influence for good in the future of Southcoast. He’s going to remain an important player. He’s going to remain a guy who doesn’t just talk a lot of economic development but a guy who produces it.
By Jack Spillane