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Construction workers on the Boston waterfront are back on the job. They broke ground this week on a massive building project at Fan Pier after years in limbo. The developer says it's the largest private-sector construction project in the country, and it's seen as a positive sign for the economy, as we hear from Curt Nickisch of member station WBUR.

CURT NICKISCH: It's the sort of event that almost makes you forget the recession ever happened. Under a big white party tent with balloons and band lights, bankers and developers beamed proudly next to the mayor and governor, each holding a silver shovel.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Hold it for a moment, for the photographers.

NICKISCH: As the row of white collars poised to dump their shovelfuls of sand, technicians readied confetti guns and smoke machines.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: All right, we'll do it on a countdown: three, two, one, go.

NICKISCH: Purple and white streamers filled the tent like a snow globe, and you could practically feel years of frustration venting into the harbor air. Put on hold four years ago amid the worsening financial climate, this prime piece of commercial real estate is finally under development.

One tenant alone will occupy more than a million square feet of office space. Those modern glass buildings will anchor more structures: a hotel, retail stores, restaurants and condominiums.

Mr. JOE WHITE: It's going to create a lot of work for a lot of trades.

NICKISCH: Leaning against the backhoe in his brown hard hat and suspenders, Joe White watched the festivities from a distance. He'll be supervising some of the 1,000 new construction jobs here and says it's a long time coming.

Mr. WHITE: Like the whole economy, everybody's been holding back on the building, and right now, this is opening up.

NICKISCH: White would know. He's an excavator. And new construction, putting holes in the ground, has been the hardest thing to finance lately.

Mr. ROBERT MARQUEZ (Finance Professor, Boston University): The key to this particular project was finding the right tenant that was going to have steady cash flows going forward.

NICKISCH: Robert Marquez, a finance professor at Boston University. He says that tenant is Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

The biotech research company just got FDA approval to sell its first major commercial drug, a potential blockbuster. Marquez says that turned the light from red to green.

Mr. MARQUEZ: For investors, financing a project is always about risk. Getting a tenant in that has FDA approval for a breakthrough drug dramatically reduces that risk.

NICKISCH: So in this case, Boston's economy is being reward for companies here that have invested in R&D. Mayor Tom Menino hopes the area around the Fan Pier development will attract more research companies. He's branding the waterfront area the Innovation District.

Mayor TOM MENINO (Boston, Massachusetts): There are developers we've met with who are looking at the Innovation District much differently than they had six months ago. With Vertex making their investment in this waterfront, they know there's great possibilities.

NICKISCH: Those possibilities are finally becoming reality for the developer of Fan Pier. Even as Joe Fallon has been fighting the tight credit markets, he's been staging events on the waterfront.

Fallon told the audience at the groundbreaking that later this summer he's bringing in cliff divers, who will jump from a nearby building into the harbor.

Mr. JOE FALLON: The reason I'm bringing cliff diving? Because if we weren't going to get going, I was going to jump.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NICKISCH: But the development is getting going. In Boston, things are improving. The hard-hit commercial real estate and construction industries are stepping back from the cliff.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.

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