Needham Town Meeting to consider tax break for TripAdvisor

Needham Town Meeting will vote Monday whether to grant a major tax break to TripAdvisor LLC to lure the online travel company to relocate to the New England Business Center,  a move town officials are calling a “game changer” that could transform the slow-growing office park into a hub of high-tech innovation.

“This park is on the verge right now,” said Jerry Wasserman, the Board of Selectmen’s chairman. It voted unanimously on Nov. 14  to support a tax increment financing plan  for TripAdvisor; the arrangement requires Town Meeting approval. “The whole idea is to fill the park. We do believe this is a major step toward doing that.”

Tax increment financing deals temporarily reduce the property tax bills of businesses in exchange for a commitment to set up or expand a facility that adds local jobs.

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If voters at Monday’s Special Town Meeting session approve the TIF plan, TripAdvisor would be granted a 76 percent exemption on its taxes for new development for five years, and then a 1 percent exemption for the next eight years. In turn, the company would relocate 450 jobs from its Newton location, and create an additional 50 jobs per year for five years. 

“They actually believe they’re going to grow more than that,” said Wasserman. “That’s a conservative estimate.”

Needham has long struggled to transform the New England Business Center from an industrial park to an office park for high-tech operations.

In 2001, the town rezoned the area with the hopes of bringing in more office buildings, said Needham’s economic development director, Devra Bailin, but growth was slow. In 2007, the town designated the park an economic target area, and last year changed its zoning laws again to allow for greater height and density.  

“We’ve been laying the foundation for this very thing,” said Selectman Moe Handel. “We did all the groundwork in the early 2000s . . . All that work is starting to pay off.”

While there are businesses in the park now, including a Sheraton hotel, Parametric Technology Corp.,  and a Coca-Cola operation, officials say the addition of TripAdvisor would be a tipping point, turning the property from a nondescript collection of buildings into a high-tech hub.

Even the name is slated to change: The town plans to drop the generic-sounding “New England Business Center’’ in favor of a more lively, and more local, moniker.

“This really gives the park an opportunity to have an identity, with an anchor business,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a high-profile kind of company, the kind you might find in Kendall Square . . . It really does put that park on the map.”

The town would not be giving up taxes on existing property — the tax break applies only to new development. TripAdvisor has outgrown its headquarters in Newton, and its proposal for Needham includes building a 230,000-square-foot facility in the business center, with the possibility of expansion later.

Business owners in the park, said Bailin, are excited about the possibility of TripAdvisor moving in.

“This is a game-changer for them, too,” said Bailin. “If TripAdvisor comes, and this building is developed as we hope, the owners at the park recognize this as a reason they should reinvest in their property.”

If the tax plan wins approval Monday, said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, it will require approval by the state.

Normandy Real Estate Partners, the developer who would be preparing its property for the TripAdvisor facility, hopes to break ground next summer, she said.

A spokesman for the company declined to comment, as did a TripAdvisor spokeswoman.

Candace Havens, Newton’s planning director, said in an e-mail that the tax plan Needham is proposing is a good incentive for encouraging new construction that benefits both the town and the company.

“Economic development is a regional effort. We all benefit from each other’s successes, especially among neighboring communities,” she said.

The tax plan would be the first of its kind for Needham, and could be its last, said Wasserman. The town’s first criteria for allowing tax increment financing is that the project must be a “game changer.”

“It’s important so that we don’t have people trying to negotiate every time somebody wants to come in, that they’re going to get a TIF,” said Wasserman. “We want to make it clear that’s just not going to happen.”