Overcoming Fears of New IT Neighbors

High-tech firms are the hot economic news of the millennium. But having a new headquarters move into your hometown isn't all good news. Overloading an aging infrastructure and increasing traffic congestion can raise local tempers. When Sun Microsystems Inc. decided to open an office in Burlington, Mass., in 1996, local residents went into high negotiation mode to make the pluses balance the minuses.

Sun's experience can serve as a lesson to other companies moving a large workforce to a new community. By providing lots of information to residents and local officials, demonstrating a willingness to work for solutions and adding cash and company services as needed, Sun worked through the process to move its East Coast headquarters to Burlington.

Only 15 miles from Boston and close to the airport, the location was convenient for European clients and provided an East Coast presence for the Silicon Valley company.

Sun started at the top. Sun CEO Scott McNealy conferred with Massachusetts' governor at the time, William Weld. The state's Office of Business Development got involved. Massachusetts was eager to attract businesses, having watched its textile and manufacturing industries decline in the early 1990s. The high-tech industries that now inspire the state to bill itself "the e-commonwealth" haven't offset that loss.

Despite the open invitation, setting up such a large shop obviously wasn't easy. Nor was relocating or recruiting an instant mega-staff. Eventually, more than three dozen government boards and agencies were involved in helping Sun move in.

Sun's real estate experts chose an abandoned, contaminated industrial site once occupied by RCA and owned in 1996 by Lockheed Martin Corp., which had occupied only 20 of the site's 158 acres and had moved out completely in 1991. Lockheed Martin was eager to sell, cleaning up the contamination to the satisfaction of state environmental officials as a condition of the sale.

Sun sent representatives to introduce the company to residents at town meetings. Despite early worries about the impact on traffic, housing prices and large-scale recruiting, the initial town government reception was positive.

George Judge, chairman of the Burlington Board of Selectmen, presided over an accelerated approval process that took less than a year because it provided parallel rather than sequential negotiations and approvals from local boards.

Solving expected traffic problems raised local tempers. To ease them, an abandoned road on Sun's property was given to the town and paved with the help of $1.5 million from a public works emergency development grant. But residents vehemently opposed an extension across an adjacent field that would have sent traffic through a residential neighborhood.

"We felt it allowed more traffic and encouraged development," said resident Christine Monaco, who spoke out against that plan. It eventually won narrow approval, but the construction won't be completed for another year and a half or longer. Local residents hope promises made by officials who have since retired will be kept.

The town and Sun also agreed to a mutual give-and-take. Sun gets early tax incentives, and the town gets substantial technology-related donations or other benefits.

A so-called economic target area was extended a few hundred feet from its original boundaries to include the Sun site. This means local officials can negotiate taxes, providing lower rates in the early years, when Sun's capital investment costs are high, and increasing to full taxation over a period of 20 years.

In addition, Sun agreed to pay $6 million over the first five years, with $4.3 million to $4.6 million going directly to local schools and the rest to highway and infrastructureimprovements.

The windfall for schools has already resulted in 23 completed projects, including a technologically revamped middle school. Before, the buildings weren't even capable of handling the electrical capacity that computers required, said Arthur Fallon, coordinator of computer and media services for Burlington schools. Projects had to start with wiring upgrades before the computers and monitors in every classroom could be added.

And finally, making your IT staff available to the community can go a long way toward improving community relations, Sun learned. The schools were wired for the Internet by Sun employees as part of Net Day activities. Sun's Community Action Volunteer Program encourages employee participation.

"We use these occasions for team building, as well as good will," said Cathy Welsh, Sun's vice president of human resources. "It's part of our retention program."

Willard is a freelance writer in Los Osos, Calif.

SIDEBAR: But What About Me?

In the event your company is pondering the big step of moving the whole operation, what's the good news and the bad news for you, the IT worker?

Consider the following:

Gather information. Find out what's involved - the where and when. What new facilities and systems will you move to? What will happen to your group?

Participate. Join a committee or volunteer for the intranet news site. You may not be able to influence decisions that have been made at other levels, but you'll hear more detail and nuance about what's coming down.

Decide. How does the move fit into your career plan? What about personal considerations, like moving your family or the impact on your spouse's career?

Follow through. If you're on board, you can use advance planning to snag a desirable cube or get trained on the new systems. If it's time for an exit plan, your preparation will make it a smooth transition.

- Christine Willard

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