In the mid-20th century, Western Electric built a plant in North Andover to create the equipment that went into the guts of the country’s telephone network. Devices used by AT&T and the Bell operating companies to transmit phones calls worked with parts engineered and manufactured off Osgood Street, not far from the Haverhill border.
The Merrimack Valley Works plant, as it was called, employed 12,000 people at its height. An overview by the town’s Historical Society called it “the economic engine” for North Andover for a half-century after it opened. People made good money working there and put their paychecks into houses, which spurred development throughout the region.
Those were the good old days, as depicted in a grainy, black and white video pulled from the AT&T archive, now posted to the Historical Society’s website. “Ours is a team that works together and plays together,” a narrator says over images of people playing baseball, hitting golf balls off the tee and rolling candlepin bowling balls. “On the diamond or inside the plant, teamwork pays off, again and again.”
It’s been quite some time since the plant at 1600 Osgood Landing was so successful. The operation evolved and retrenched with the evolution of AT&T and its successor companies. Much like textile jobs that preceded it in the region, work at the factory was uprooted and replanted overseas. The most recent telecom company to operate there, Lucent Technologies, left town a decade ago.
The vast property at Osgood Landing — the facility sits on 168 acres — has since been used by an array of small businesses, but mostly it’s been underused. How it would be redeveloped, by whom and for what purpose, have been key questions hanging over the town, truly the whole region, for years.
Answers started coming into view this past week, with confirmation that online retail giant Amazon wants to locate a distribution center at the site. It’s far from a done deal; Town Meeting must agree to a five-story building on the property, and to pay a portion of the cost of extending the sewer two miles to connect on site. Both should be considered carefully, but the $2.3 million that represents the town’s share of the sewer extension is short money for what comes in return.
For North Andover, the payoff begins with a tax payment of between $3.3 million and $4.4 million annually, according to Paul Tennant’s reporting on the issue. Its outlay for the sewer extension, in other words, should be repaid quickly. Never mind the 1,500 jobs an Amazon center would be expected to create — an expansion of the local jobs base that will be felt beyond North Andover and the Merrimack Valley, into southern New Hampshire and the North Shore.
Besides all of that is what the site won’t become, namely, a 1.1 million square foot indoor pot farm. A year ago, plans to build a marijuana cultivation and research operation were gaining momentum as the next best use of the fallow industrial site, but that proposal was doomed by controversy.
Not long before that, North Andover leaders had banded with city and town leaders elsewhere in the Merrimack Valley to lobby Amazon on plopping its East Coast headquarters in the region. They joined a competition to lure Amazon’s “HQ2” that seemed to entrance most every major community in the country. The old Western Electric plant figured prominently in the local proposal.
Needless to say, that didn’t come to fruition. The retailer instead selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, for its regional headquarters, though it later rethought its whole “HQ2” mission.
But maybe the pitch planted a seed in the retailer’s mind. Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini alluded to such a strategy by local officials in a statement released after the Amazon announcement for Osgood Landing: “The idea was that even if we didn’t get it, hopefully we could get a subsidiary business or project somewhere down the line, and that’s exactly what happened. This is going to bring a lot of jobs to Haverhill and the region, and is great news.”
So it is. An Amazon distribution center on the site will be nothing on the order of HQ2, with the tens of thousands of jobs promised with that development. Its workforce will just a fraction of the small city that teemed at the old Western Electric factory back in the day.
But it does promise to be a significant source of economic kindling for North Andover -- and, indeed, the Merrimack Valley, North Shore and southern New Hampshire.