By Lee Howard
Groton — Pfizer Inc.'s announcement Wednesday that it will apply for permits to pave the way for demolishing its original research headquarters off Eastern Point Road left some officials scratching their heads about whether the company is serious about marketing its property.
"It potentially sends a very wrong message," Town Manager Mark Oefinger said. "I don't believe this is a fait accompli (an irreversible decision), but it is going to be interpreted by some people that it is a fait accompli."
The New York-based pharmaceutical giant told employees in Groton Wednesday that it has started the process of applying for permits to demolish the 750,000-square-foot Building 118 complex, but officials said they still hope to market the property.
"Pfizer continues to work toward investing in science by reducing its operating costs, including consolidating its global footprint," the company said in a statement released Wednesday. "Pfizer continues to aggressively market the space, and plans to make a decision regarding the future of the 118 Complex by the end of 2012."
Taking Pfizer's first local R&D headquarters off the town's tax rolls would cost Groton about $2.15 million. Oefinger said the demolition of the seven-building complex would result in roughly a half-mill tax increase for property owners.
"There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to see if there is a potential reuse for these buildings," Oefinger said.
Last month, Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, met with various parties at the Mystic Marriott to see whether they could come up with a plan to reuse any of the four buildings Pfizer currently has on the market for sale or lease. Pfizer already has demolished one building on its campus that was on the market for nearly a year.
Oefinger said he doesn't believe Pfizer has invested in any sort of analysis of what kinds of changes in Building 118 could attract another company. Industry downsizing and the resulting glut of lab space around the world has made marketing the building as it is currently configured difficult, he said.
"These buildings have to be worth something," Oefinger said. "It would cost a small fortune to duplicate."
No specific time line was given for a final decision on the demolition of Building 118, an architecturally significant laboratory and office building highlighted by a glass atrium. The building at one time accommodated about 400 employees, but has been largely vacated by Pfizer in a cost-cutting move as the company completed over the past year and a half a workforce reduction locally of about 1,100.
Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith said Pfizer was pulling the permits now to avoid a delay if and when it makes a final decision to demolish Building 118, but officials are still working with the company to market the property.
"We understand this is a fallback for them," Galbraith said.
Oefinger said he expressed his opinions about the timing of the announcement to Pfizer officials Wednesday morning during a regular weekly conference call. He added that the decision to prepare for demolition may be just good planning, but the public announcement would seem to negate any marketing efforts for the property.
"What I don't understand is how this could be received by the general population out in the community," he said. "It probably quickens our step, but it also gives us a little bit of pause about how we explain this to people."