In Worcester, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented children from attending in-person classes at school. It left office buildings around the city nearly empty. It even halted the construction of major projects like Polar Park, South Community High School and the public library.
More than a year after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency, even with the seven-week construction stoppage, commercial and real estate development remains one aspect in the city that appears immune to the effects of the pandemic.
“As cities like Boston have been priced incredibly expensive for development, Worcester has been seen as a place of opportunity from a return-on-investment perspective,” said James Umphrey, a principal at Kelleher and Sadowsky Associates, during a web series sponsored by Worcester Business Journal and State House News Service titled “Worcester Emerging.”
Umphrey was one of five developers who joined the web series last week to discuss Worcester’s position in the state coming out of the pandemic.
While COVID-19 unquestionably sacked some sectors of the economy, many remain optimistic that Worcester will recapture the momentum that drove the birth of its renaissance before the pandemic.
“Worcester has a story to tell,” CEO of Synergy Investments David Greaney said.
Weeks before the pandemic shut down many businesses, Greaney said he held a meeting with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to discuss bringing commercial real estate brokers from Boston to Worcester for a day trip.
“This is not the Worcester you think of or you may have perceptions about,” Greaney said. “It has changed a lot and there’s a lot of great things going on. We look forward to getting that back on the calendar and really just highlighting downtown Worcester as a fantastic place.”
In October of 2019, Synergy Investments purchased the glass tower at 446 Main St. one of the most prominent buildings in Worcester’s downtown. A year later the office building was at about 50% capacity. None of it has dampened Greaney’s optimism of his decade-long plans in Worcester.
Other developers echoed Greaney’s sentiments in Worcester because of the city’s stable foundation.
The city, Rich Mazzocchi, managing director of Boston Capital Development LLC, highlighted Worcester’s strong demographic and stability in medical and educational institutions along with the emergence of biotech and life sciences sectors.
Boston Capital is set to begin the first phase of a housing development by the end of the year at the site of the Table Talk Pies bakery at Kelley Square.
“Those types of things are traditionally driving factors for our investment strategy,” Mazzocchi said. “The thing that really adds to our attraction to Worcester is the momentum, particularly downtown with public investment and private investment.”
Not far from downtown, the Reactory biomanufacturing park, located alongside UMass Medicine Science Park, allows room for the emerging industries in the city to continue growing.
Located on Belmont Street near the intersection of Shrewsbury Street, The Reactory is a 46-acre campus dedicated to biotechnology and pharmaceutical manufacturing that is shovel-ready with permits in place.
“In life sciences, on the tip of everyone’s tongue is speed to market,” said Michael O’Brien, a principal at Galaxy Development and Galaxy Life Sciences. “Having the ability to have your permits in place and start construction in 30 days from signing a lease agreement is a huge advantage. We have that at the Reactory.”
Beyond land, Worcester’s other natural resources can attract business, specifically its young talent. The colleges that populate Worcester host more than 35,000 students.
The No. 1 draw to a new city for a company, the developers said, is harvesting talent.
“The largest determining factor in terms of where they locate their business is their ability to attract and retain talent,” Greaney said. “I think that’s where we got to keep our eye on the ball in terms of what Worcester is when it’s presented as a potential site.”
The top attraction for employees in a city, Greaney said, is cleanliness, public safety and amenities such as housing, nightlife and restaurants.
Worcester has plans to address all three of those categories, specifically downtown. Public art kiosks will be installed this year on Main Street to encourage more walking and lends to a safer feeling environment.
The DCU Center, the Hanover Theatre, the Brickbox Theater, the Palladium, Mechanics Hall and Polar Park are all within walking distance of each other.
Not far from those performance venues, Shrewsbury Street and the Canal District have each emerged as a paradise for foodies.
Housing developments are in progress or close to completion in the Canal District and downtown.
It all falls into a recipe for success in Worcester.
“The blueprint is there for successful cities,” Greaney said. “… When there has been a concerted effort to address safety and cleanliness and make apartment renters feel like they can walk the streets, that they’re proud of the city they’re living in, that’s driven quite dramatically by public safety and cleanliness.”
By Michael Bonner