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Officials hope to limit Pfizer demolition

By Lee Howard

Publication: theday.com

Published April 27. 2012 3:00PM   Updated April 28. 2012 5:26PM

Groton — Pfizer Inc.’s decision to tear down one of the five buildings it has been trying to sell led town and city officials Friday to offer to help market the properties.

Pfizer officials appearing at an Economic Development Commission meeting said the company’s priority is to find buyers or tenants for the remaining buildings at its 160-acre campus off Eastern Point Road. But Jonathan Putnam, executive director of the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, which is marketing the Pfizer buildings, said there are currently no active prospects.

Pfizer is promoting for sale or lease about 840,000 of the 2.7 million square feet it has available. Officials at the meeting said they couldn’t speculate how long Pfizer might keep the properties on the market before giving up and potentially knocking them all down.

“We want to keep Pfizer here, and we also want to help sell those buildings,” City Mayor Marian Galbraith said.

In an attempt to address the issue, members of the EDC met earlier this week with Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, and deputy commissioner Ronald Angelo. Members of the EDC said they felt the state was eager to help develop a plan to save the buildings, which could involve anything from tax incentives to an arrangement that might enable a group or agency to buy or lease one or more buildings on behalf of several startup companies.

EDC members said before the meeting that they know Pfizer officials can’t hang on to the properties forever, but they are hoping the state might be able to pay taxes on the buildings until a new use for them can be found. Officials estimated that taxes and other costs to the company associated with maintaining the buildings would amount to more than $3 million a year.

“It would be a great shame to see these buildings demolished,” EDC member Bill Smith said in an interview before Friday’s meeting. “I don’t want this to be a ghost town.”

Michael Lallier, in charge of facilities at Pfizer’s Groton site, said the demolition of Building 126 — which featured laboratory space near the company’s power plant — already has started on the inside of the structure and should be completed by the end of May. The demolition comes after almost a year of unsuccessful marketing efforts. The company applied for the demolition permit last October, he said, and the 46,000-square-foot building has been vacant since July.

“These buildings have very specific designs that are not easily adaptable to just any use — particularly office use,” said Putnam, Pfizer’s real estate broker.

Lallier said Pfizer had applied for another permit to do work in Building 156, but the intention for that building is to renovate that space for a tenant currently using Building 118, the company’s 755,000-square-foot original research-and-development headquarters, a key building that Pfizer hopes to sell or lease.

Other sites currently available are Building 114, a two-story office building; Building 286, a one-story facility that is about 60 percent laboratories and 40 percent office space, and Building 288, a laboratory building near the visitors center.

Dominick Ianno, director of public affairs for Pfizer’s global sites in the Northeast, said the company would prefer selling or leasing the buildings to one entity rather than carving out deals with a variety of smaller players. His comment led Town Manager Mark Oefinger to conclude that if an entity such as the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut or UConn wanted to open incubator space on the Pfizer campus, they had better put the deal together themselves rather than relying on small startups to make the arrangements.

“They want to be able to walk in the door, plug in and do their thing,” Oefinger said.

Underlying the discussion of Pfizer’s laboratory space were concerns that the pharmaceutical giant might plan to vacate southeastern Connecticut entirely in the next few years, as it has done at sites around the world. Pfizer is in the midst of a research-and-development restructuring that already has resulted in hundreds of job losses locally, and sometime this year will result in a workforce that’s 1,100 smaller than it was at the beginning of last year.

“Pfizer slowly moving away from this region creates a black hole that will vacuum out many of the businesses in this region,” EDC member George Mathanool said.

Member Lian Obrey put it more bluntly.

“The reputation of what you’ve done to other areas is horrible,” she told the Pfizer representatives. “People are afraid of the same thing happening here.”

Company representatives assured town and city officials that Pfizer is investing millions in re-adapting the buildings it is currently using and, though it is always looking to consolidate, it has no plans to vacate major portions of the campus.

Lallier, the facilities director, said Pfizer chief executive Ian Read visited Groton last month and, prompted by a question from outgoing site leader Toni Hoover, assured employees that the campus remains a viable site for the company, despite the relocation of its drug-discovery efforts to Cambridge, Mass. The Groton site remains the company’s worldwide development hub.

“Everything Pfizer decides to pursue as a company will come through this site,” Lallier said. “That’s a pretty good place to be.”

l.howard@theday.com

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