Progress for Lawrence: high-tech factory in an old mill

The low-lying, red-brick building - one of many that line the banks of the Merrimack River in this industrial city - is vacant now, a sad reminder of the once-booming textile industry here. But by midsummer, this old mill is expected to be humming again when GCA Corporation opens its new manufacturing plant in Lawrence.

Across the river and past the bustling streets of the downtown area is another group of red-brick buildings - 14 of them squeezed onto a small parcel of land in the Lower Tower Hill section of Lawrence. They comprise the Merrimack Courts housing project, the focus of last summer's disturbances.

If all goes as planned, some of these residents will be eligible to work in the new factory.

Warren Davidson, GCA's vice-president of public relations, says the company expects to employ 1,200 people - 400 of them from the ranks of ''the hard-core unemployed'' - when the project is complete in four years. GCA will also spend $ 1.3 million, plus $500,000 of state money, for an on-site center to train workers to build semiconductor manufacturing equipment.

The company, based in Bedford, Mass., announced last month that it plans to spend $20 million (including $6.2 million from a federal grant) to refurbish one of the buildings on the former Pacific Print Works mill. Mr. Davidson says remodeling will begin ''immediately, just as soon as we get the necessary approvals you need for any construction project.'' Lawrence officials, he says, have streamlined the permit process to speed the project along.

Back at Merrimack Courts, the 250 families here have been promised that renovation work will begin, but the timing is less certain. Roland Hatch, executive director of the Lawrence Housing Authority, explains that $6.7 million in federal money to modernize the 44-year-old housing project got caught in red tape at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after all bids on the contract came in over budget. He says he expects reconstruction of kitchens and bathrooms in the project to begin next spring.

In the meantime, bright lighting and a visible police presence have been established at Merrimack Courts to tackle problems with vandalism and drug-dealing that come from outside the project, Mr. Hatch says.

The Essex County Drug Task Force, concerned about the high population density in the project, has suggested that the city tear down two of the buildings. But ''HUD would not allow two buildings to be razed if there's no place for the 40 families to relocate,'' Hatch says. ''The city has to have a fallback plan.''

Hatch says he would like to see duplexes and quadriplexes built on vacant or underused city property ''to disperse the kind of public housing we have.'' City Hall, which initially opposed the suggestion, has recently decided to present the plan for HUD's approval.

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