Beyond being the future site of a revolutionary nuclear fusion startup, a decommissioned military base in central Massachusetts has become a hot spot for state construction beyond Boston, with more than $1 billion in life sciences and other research and manufacturing redevelopment activity underway.

Companies ranging from a nuclear fusion startup to logistics firms are locating at the former 4,400-acre Fort Devens site, located about 40 miles northwest of Boston. The base, built in 1917, closed in 1996 and is now primarily controlled by the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, known as MassDevelopment. The quasi-independent state authority has since redeveloped the site into a modern commercial and industrial park, with a small residential component as well.

“It is really an unprecedented level of interest and growth in Devens right now.” said Jessica Strunkin, a MassDevelopment executive vice president overseeing operations at the former base.


Nuclear Wave

Leading the latest wave of development is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup led by MIT scientists who seek to build a nuclear fusion reactor that would imitate the way the sun generates energy. The company earlier this year snapped up 47 acres of land at Fort Devens.

Crews have begun work on a $500-million nuclear fusion research-office complex for the MIT startup, which is backed by private investors, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, Amazon executive chairman.

The firm is working with King Street Properties a Boston-based developer that specializes in the life-sciences sector.

B.W. Kennedy & Co., the project's Atlington, Mass., contractor, broke ground earlier this year on the first building, a 164,000-sq-ft office and manufacturing facility. Vivo Architecture and civil engineer Highpoint Engineering also are working on the project, according to High Profile.

The building, set for completion in the fall, will provide offices for researchers and space for construction of the powerful magnets at the center of the experimental fusion reactor.

Plans are also moving forward on a second 147,000-sq-ft building, where the fusion reactor is assembled and tested, according to MassDevelopment.

Work on that is not expected to be complete until 2025, with the potential for three more buildings down the line.

If that proves successful, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and MIT will begin work on the world’s first commercial fusion reactor, with a pilot power plant potentially ready by the early 2030s or even by the end of this decade.


Growth Sector

Pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb also is now wrapping up work on a site project, a 244,000-sq-ft expansion large enough to accommodate an additional 800 employees that is now undergoing a final round of inspections.

The expansion brings the Bristol Myers campus at the former base to 1 million sq ft, with its 1,000 employees making the company one of the largest employers at the fsite. The facility will have space for the firm to add several hundred more employees during the coming years

Gearing up for drug manufacturing will take longer, with the new facility expected to start producing Breyanzi, the BMS’ first CAR T cell therapy by 2023. The therapy is designed to treat adults with “relapsed or refractory large B-cell lymphoma,” according to the company.

“The pandemic presented a set of new and evolving challenges that we have not experienced in past construction projects," said Craig Johnson, vice president, global engineering and facilities at Bristol Myers Squibb. "Despite this, our project team continues to ensure that this ambitious and time-sensitive project remains on schedule, while also ensuring the health and safety of our employees and contractors. We understand that completing this facility on time enables BMS to deliver transformative cell therapies to our patients with aggressive hematological cancers—and that’s been a powerful motivator for all of us.”

DPR Construction is the main contractor overseeing the project, with subcontractors that include Cives Steel Co., Manafort Precision, Performance Contracting Inc., Walsh Mechanical Contractors, DECCO Inc., Piquette & Howard Electrical Service Inc., and Harold Brothers Mechanical Contractors.

A third major project–a new biomanufacturing campus–also is taking shape at the site, with King Street Properties now is seeking tenants for the first of a planned five-building campus totaling 700,000 sq ft.

Smaller projects are also taking shape. Little Leaf Farms, a greenhouse lettuce grower, recently doubled its footprint at Devens to 10 acres, and last month, UK-based manufacturer Watson-Marlow broke ground on a 150,000-sq-ft facility that will make products including “peristaltic pumps, tubing, fluid path solutions and BioPure components,” some of which are used in the life sciences sector, according to trade publication Water Technology.

“We are starting to see a real growth in clusters here in Devens; there is a life sciences cluster but also a third-party logistics cluster as well,” Strunkin said.