Sketch of the Merrimack Valley Works plant at North Andover while under construction in 1955
Merrimack Valley pols courting the tech behemoth have forgotten recent history
A couple of weeks ago, I criticized the possibility of an Amazon Boston deal—on the grounds that most of the jobs it would provide would be for software engineers, not our struggling local working class. And that allowing a single company to build a 50,000-employee operation here overnight would give it way too much political economic power in our region. However, it’s not just Boston politicians who are hot to dump vast amounts of public funds on the huge multinational. Several other Massachusetts cities and towns are following suit.
Perhaps the strongest proposal of that group of entrants is coming from four municipalities in the Merrimack Valley region of the state: Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover. They are offering to broker a deal with the owners of the underutilized 1.8 million-square-foot industrial facility called Osgood Landing in North Andover. This could conceivably fit Amazon’s bill, although the site is not located in the midst of a major city. Which the company has made clear is a priority. Also at issue is that Osgood Landing’s owners have been working to build a giant marijuana farm on the site instead. But the siren call of ready corporate cash will likely be enough to change their minds given that they’ve already signaled their support for the new venture.
Lost in most of the media chatter about the drive to “win” the Amazon deal is the fact that Osgood Landing was once a Lucent plant—and the context of its shutdown is completely absent. Lucent was the successor corporation to Western Electric. Which was better known as the old AT&T’s manufacturing division. And the North Andover plant was once Western Electric’s Merrimack Valley Works. Which built the transmission equipment that kept the nation’s phone system going. The company set up shop in Haverhill and Lawrence during World War II—just as the region’s famed textile and shoe industries began to decline. In 1956, it opened the North Andover plant and consolidated its regional operations there, becoming the new dominant industry in the area.
Video: “AT&T Archives: In the Merrimack Valley”  (hat tip to Ryan W. Owen’s website for the find)
The jobs at the Merrimack Valley Works were mostly unionized, and they raised thousands of local families into the ranks of the middle class. But the chaos following the federally ordered breakup of AT&T’s near-monopoly of the US telephone system in 1984 saw the plant’s workforce fall from over 12,000 at the height of the Western Electric era in the 1970s, to 7,000 in 1991, to 5,500 under Lucent in 2001 (well into a quick collapse five years after taking over the Western Electric business)… to zero in 2008, after the French telecom multinational Alcatel bought Lucent in 2006 and ordered the facility’s shutdown. The plant itself had already been sold to current owner Ozzy Properties in 2003. Alcatel-Lucent ended up being absorbed by Nokia in 2016.
Ironically, this sad outcome was predicted by local policy experts. In 1991, according to the “History Corner” of the Lucent Retirees’ website, “the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission investigated what the potential loss of … the Merrimack Valley Works might cost the region. The study found that a worst case decline that eliminated the plant’s then 7,000 jobs would cost 15 Valley communities $880 million. Lost supply orders for smaller companies in the area would eliminate another 7,700 secondary jobs.”
That all came to pass by 2008. Compounding the damage already done by the loss of the other 5,000-plus jobs at the plant between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Lucent’s unions slowed but ultimately could not stop the destruction of thousands more good jobs in the Merrimack Valley.
Which highlights the problem of spending public money to attract giant corporations like Amazon. Big companies can change their plans at the drop of a dime. And, without the kind of government regulation and unionization that major companies like AT&T had to operate under between WWII and the 1970s, the promised 50,000 jobs can become no jobs in the blink of an eye. Because who’s to stop an anti-regulation, anti-union company like Amazon from shutting down an operation as fast as it sets it up in this era? No one. No one at all. And, naturally, regions that fall for this “jobs creation” shell game have no plan B.
One would think that political leaders in Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and North Andover, informed by their own regional planners, would remember such history and focus on more sustainable economic development options. After all, the 2013 Merrimack Valley Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy produced by the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission stated, “The region’s best prospects for future economic growth are its local entrepreneurs.” Local entrepreneurs like the Osgood Landing owners, if they choose to start their marijuana farm rather than grab for the brass ring Amazon could offer them. A sustainable “growth” industry if ever there was one that could provide an estimated 2,500 good jobs to the region—two-thirds of which would not require college degrees. But it seems like local residents, perhaps with former Lucent employees in the lead, will now have to remind their elected officials. If not in lobby days and protests prior to an Amazon deal, then definitely at the ballot box come next election should such a disastrous initiative ever actually come to pass.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.