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Worcester Finds Its Post-Industrial Self-Confidence

WORCESTER, Mass. — This old, gritty industrial city is beginning to chase after a new identity. Political and business leaders say they want to make Worcester the best mid-size city in New England. And to do it, they’ll need to convince young professionals like Nick Labbe.

Labbe is a 24-year-old Providence College graduate from Portsmouth, R.I.

“Prior to moving here, Worcester was not my ideal location,” Labbe says.

After graduating from PC in 2008, Labbe accepted an offer from Hanover Insurance company — one of Worcester’s top employers. But he was reluctant to come here because of Worcester’s reputation as a blue-collar city.

“I had lived in Providence for four years,” he says. “Providence is great. Boston is right down the road. So Worcester, comparatively speaking, was never, you know, the glamorous city that those two were for me. So, I wasn’t exactly excited to come here.”

“We’re not trying to be something that we’re not. We have a tremendous appreciation of what we offer.”
– Worcester City Manager Michael O’Brien

Worcester City Manager Michael O’Brien understands that, acknowledging that for years Worcester — the second largest city in New England — has been operating in the shadow of other New England cities.

“We here in Worcester have been our own worst enemies. We’ve always self-deprecated a bit because of Providence and Boston. We’ve shed that. There’s a self-confidence now that we’re going to capitalize on our strengths,” O’Brien says.

Strengths highlighted by expanding industries like insurance, bio-tech and medicine. For example, the University of Massachusetts Medical School is based in Worcester.

Though it might not sound that exciting, O’Brien says Worcester is aiming to be “the most affordable mid-size city in New England.” It’s a goal that’s actually stated in the city plan.

“We’re not trying to be something that we’re not. Our goal is not to become a Boston or look at Providence as a model. We have a tremendous appreciation of what we offer, and our vision is to build off of that,” O’Brien says.

Shedding Worcester’s Old Image

This is not something that came to Worcester overnight. The city struggled and stagnated for decades.

“It’s very difficult for a city like this to see so many old industries fade and then fail,” says College of the Holy Cross history Professor John Anderson.

Once Worcester was called the “broom closet” of New England, a place not too attractive but highly productive.

“It was the world’s leading producer of abrasives. It was the United States’ leading producer of crank shafts for automobiles,” Anderson says.

John Anderson, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross, says Worcester was once "the world's leading producer of abrasives." (Kirk Carapezza for WBUR)

John Anderson, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross, says Worcester was once "the world's leading producer of abrasives." (Kirk Carapezza for WBUR)

Worcester factories once churned shoes, wallpaper, ice skates, trolley cars and the somewhat famous Worcester-built diners: short-order eateries that can occasionally still be found dotting blue-collar neighborhoods around America.

But time caught up with the industrial city. Some business dried up, others found less expensive places to produce their products and moved.

The city hemorrhaged jobs. Unemployment soared. Tax revenue plummeted.

And then hope.

In the late ’60s, the Worcester Galleria — a new mall — became the city’s economic savior. It flourished at first but eventually could not compete with shopping areas outside the city that offered free parking.

The galleria became an outlet mall. For a while, it worked; it drew crowds, but that too failed.

Once it failed, “there was a sense that we’ve entered a kind of gray area. We’re not quite certain what route to take in the future — what direction to go,” Anderson says.

Fast forward to now. The empty, concrete galleria, the behemoth in the heart of downtown Worcester, met its fate: 2010.

A Groundbreaking Ceremony

Out of the ashes of the old mall’s demolition will arise a new economic hope — 20 acres of restaurants and clubs, 200,000-square feet of office and high-end residential space and “Mercantile Street,” a new road that will cut through the old mall property. The entire effort is known as the “city square project.”

O’Brien spoke to hundreds of people at the groundbreaking. The $560 million city square project, he says, is critical to Worcester’s future.

“Not as a silver bullet, but instead to set the proper table for long-term sustainable economic growth in our downtown, in our central business district and throughout the city,” O’Brien says.

None of this would have happened without Hanover Insurance company. The company employs more than 2,000 people in Worcester at its sprawling office park just off I-290. The auto, home and business insurance company paid $5 million to purchase about half of the acreage for the city square project.

“We are committed to this city,” says Spencer native and Hanover CEO Fred Eppinger.

“We’ve been here 160 years, so I think it’ll be good for us for another 100 or so. It’s an important part of who we are; it is our hometown.”

Eppinger says he doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything living in Worcester instead of Boston.

“I actually think it’s a great benefit, because what you find is that the livability west of the city is quite an attraction for employees,” he says.

So Hanover’s interest in Worcester and the city square project is really, at least partly, self-interest. It needs to attract quality workers, so in helping to transform Worcester’s downtown, Hanover believes it’s helping itself.

The New Worcester

Nick Labbe, a Worcester homeowner. (Kirk Carapezza for WBUR)

The change in Worcester that has already come — new restaurants and nightlife, a feeling the city is relatively safe from crime, and improving city schools — has helped.

City officials feel there’s a new spark of life. And a sense of pride.

And that Providence College alum — Nick Labbe, who was reluctant to move to Worcester two years ago for his new job after graduation — has decided to stay.

He bought a house.

“Buying a house is a huge decision, so I thought about that and I thought, ‘Is Worcester a place that I can see myself in five to 10 years?’ and I thought ‘Yes, it absolutely, definitely is.’ “

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  • John Donnelly

    It seems that the state has pumped a lot of money into Worcester and downtown is still dead at all times of the day. You didn’t ask any hard questions. Why is City Square any different then other past projects in Worcester? And how much government money goes into this project? And who benefits?

  • Frank Kirian

    Missing from your report: Worcester transportation! It’s a maze.

    Worcester has the worst street signage in Christendom. Finding one’s way in, out, and around town is a nightmare. I challenge anyone to drive to a Worcester address without getting lost—even with GPS, email directions, and a detailed map (which is hard to get).

    We have given up on doing business with Worcester companies where meetings or deliveries are needed. If you don’t know two blocks in advance, you will never be in the proper lane. Even if you are, you will suddenly face a sign that directs in three different directions, none of which you want. Stopping to get directions is hopeless–even Worcesterites (with rare exceptions) can’t explain the road system.

    Worcester will never be a destination city for business or tourists until it gets its street system in order and make it easy for drivers.

  • Joan Yood

    There is no decent retail in Worcester for things such as clothing shopping and residents have to drive 45 minutes to an hour to get to the Natick Mall or Boston.There is virtually no Amtrak service to places like New York,bus is the only way there with fares higher than those available from Boston to New York.

  • Marc Sanguinetti

    I have to disagree with the previous posts. The City has taken great strides to improve its infrastructure. Street signs are everywhere. The Blackstone Valley Shoppes, Auburn Mall and Solomon Pond Mall are minutes away. The surrounding towns and communities provide Worcester county with real New England flavor. It saddens me to read more of the same stereotypes about Worcester from Bostonians.

  • Jim May

    With all the advantages Boston has, it is amazing that any city in the Northeast can attract the middle and upple middle class.

    Worcester would do well to lose their parocial attitudes and to embrace the international world that will define the worl;d economy of this century. And I think they are doing that now.

    For those who complain about the City or shun Worcester, my answer is” Fine, leave”. Worcester is leaping ahead, led by leadership who grew up here, but work in the State Capitol or close by.

    Worcester is finally recognizing that its academic system is a plus. Politicians who used to use town-gown divisiveness for their own singularly gains are coming around to making downtown acceptable to the WPI, MassPharm and UMass-Med graduates.

    Worcester’s uniqueness includes natural resources and inexpensive housing,two things Boston doeesn’t have.

    The Lt. Governor’s push to add high speed rail lanes is and efforts to crush the Galleria are major accomplishments in the right direction.

    For whatever reason Worcester chose not to have the MassPike go through their City in the 1950s, a major mistake. But the present generation of political leadership is nonstop in reversing those mistakes.

    Real growth, real urban living takes place in sort of an chaotic madhouse. Imagine south Manhattan in the 1850s. A downtown design that encompasses pedestrianism, green living, high incomes and laissez faire attitudes will be a warm, welcome place for anyone to live. So why NOT Worcester? :)

  • Sally

    Worcester driving–you must be kidding. If you manage to find your way into Worcester, you will never get out! I’ve driven in Paris and London. Trying to find useful signs to useful roads in Worcester is far worse.

    Any visit to Worcester requires adding 1 hour to get on the approximately right direction, and 2 hrs to get out to a recognized location.

    Charlie on the T is small time compared to getting out of Worcester by road in a direction you want.

  • http://worcesterwonderland.blogspot.com/ will. w. w.

    Gotta chime here.

    Anyone who thinks getting into and outta Wusta has extraordinarily poor geography skills – the Pike, or 290 or 395. How simple.

    As for Mr. May. Uniqueness? Recognize its academic system? Come now. Surely you jest?

    Wusta is a typical parochial MA “town of 175,000″. Can’t think of on thing that is unique. Well, except for an extraordinarily boring cultural life. Having 10+ institutions has no bearing on the cultural scene here – never has. The dichotomy between locals and institutions has existed since time immemorial = will never be overcome.

    The overabundance of colleges/universities has created a situation that has created an unbridgeable distance between locals and the C&U’s. The city has done nothing but supply lip service to the issue.

    There are almost a dozen educational institutions within the city boundaries. As every local knows, the institutions have taken advantage of their non-profit status to milk the taxpaying citizen – using city services over decades without consideration.

    That 3 have kicked in only a couple million of PILOT (over 20 years) is still an issue here, considering there is over a billion in C&U endowments.

    Worcester is no gem – it takes work to adjust to this place. Once you do, you’ll see it offers little to the adventurous resident.

    But still hope it’ll make something out of itself. It needs a city council with vision and fortitude. Something not known to have ever existed here.

    As for the “growing” bio tech sector. Well that’s a another piece of fiction. Best indicator are the want ads and the incorporations – lower than than 128.

    So, come one, come all… um, on second thought…

  • tom

    Glad people tell how awful traffic in Worcester is. BUR has blinders on by not addressing this. Horrible traffic limits Worcester’s growth. Fire all the idiot traffic “managers” and start over.

    Ugly wasteland of “downtown” and idiotic street signs.

  • Leslie

    I lived in Worcester for almost a year in 2008. Believe it or not I moved there from North Carolina. I love Wrocester. I used to say it is the working person’s San Francisco. On sunny mornings, with the hills and triple deckers I really felt great to be there. I’d love to live there again.

  • sam

    Worcester is a dump – plain and simple. Have you driven down Southbridge street lately? They don’t have any money to paint lines in their roads. You can count the good neighborhoods on one hand!

  • Big daddy

    Nick labbe gets an article about him? this has to be the worst town ever. haha labbe this is amazing what a week. PD

  • UMass Student

    My feeling is this city needs to depart from its past. There is the justified impression that this city is a ghetto. I have lived here for 10 years in several neighborhoods and the odds are high that anybody who rents an apartment (or worse a triple decker apartment) is either a student or an undesirable neighbor. Everywhere you go (except the west side which you can’t afford) there is an idiot with a badass attitude (i.e. a thug with a pitbull and a pick up truck of unknown profession). It’s no wonder the place is not attractive to families or professionals. Of all the people I know working at UMass the only ones who live in Worcester are those who cannot afford living in Shrewsbury, Holden, etc. Even foreigners know you don’t want to take your kids to Worcester public schools and they rent in Shrewsbury. So many highly educated White/Indian/Chinese people live in Shrewsbury but work at UMass/WPI because of the school system (to put it in politically incorrect terms they don’t want their children to go to school with white trash, black or puertorican kids). How much money is being diverted to Shrewsbury and Holden from rent, groceries etc? People talk about colleges not being taxed, but how much economic activity do people working or studying in these colleges bring to Worcester?
    So it isn’t the mall, the road signs and all that stuff. It’s the local population scaring people away. Worcester could be like Amherst-Northampton, alas…
    The solution? I don’t know, hire Giuliani :) Could there be a tax break for landlords renting to people associated with the colleges?

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