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.”
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.
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
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.’ “