Chris [00:00:29] Welcome, everybody to this episode of the Worcester Real Estate podcast today. I’m really excited to be joined by Peter Dunn. He is the assistant chief development officer for the city of Worcester. So, Peter, welcome to K&S and welcome to the Worcester Real Estate Podcast.
Peter [00:00:43] Thanks for having me.
Chris [00:00:45] I definitely wanted to pick your brain a lot because obviously Worcester has a ton going on and a lot of that is a result of you and everyone in your office. So before I get into all that, I was curious to hear your background, how you got interested in city planning and city development. I understand you grew up in the city. How did you end up working in City Hall?
Peter [00:01:08] I grew up in Holden so just down the road off of Salisbury Street. And then so I went to Wachusett Regioinal High School and then did my undergraduate degree at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island where I studied economics, management and Spanish. While in college, I did internships with the WBDC (Worcester Business Development Corp) and Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. Really enjoyed that time with both those organizations. These two exposed me to the whole economic development world here in the City.
After graduation, I came back home and worked for Hanover Insurance for a year. I think that’s a common theme when you have college students returning home. They look at some of the largest employers, some of the reputable companies in the area. I spent a year at Hanover Insurance. . And after about a year at Hanover Insurance, there was a job that popped up in that economic development office. I applied (for the job)…..and have been there for about seven years now.
Chris [00:02:01] You went to work for the City during the time when things were starting to take off. I think people were talking about things taking off in the last seven years, obviously the city has been on this incredible trajectory, probably above and beyond people’s wildest expectations. So it’s just exciting to see. I grew up in Millbury. And when I was a kid. You kind of only came to Worcester for the Ice Cats (hockey games). Other than that, there really wasn’t a lot for families to do. There really wasn’t. Especially downtown, there wasn’t a lot for them to do. It was a whole different fabric. And one of the things we talk about a lot of the podcast and especially in our office is it it just feels like we’re finally realizing our fullest potential as a City and as a region. So that’s really exciting. Having gone to school in Rhode Island where you were able to experience other states, other cities. What do you think? What makes Worcester’s opportunity to be so unique these days?
Peter [00:03:08] It certainly helped that the economy as a whole was beginning to rebound in 2013 when I first started work for the City. We were starting to climb out of the recession. That was obviously positive in terms of people looking to invest dollars and looking to start businesses. And so that recovery helped fuel a lot of the organic kind of macro of trends that we were seeing. But Worcester with its concentration of colleges and universities rebounded very well when compared to other cities in Massachusetts such as Lowell or New Bedford or Fall River, and Springfield. Having such a strong education sector is really huge asset for our community.
Chris [00:03:39] Absolutely.
Peter [00:03:39] think having a strong education sector and healthcare sector is really helpful to have during the ups and downs of economic cycles. We fared pretty well through the last one because of the meds (healthcare-related organizations). You know that economic base that we have. Is that we have people are still getting sick. People still need health care. People often go back to school when the economy is not doing great. So I think, that the core of our economy: hospitals, universities, really fuels a lot of what we’re doing.
Chris [00:04:08] We’re very fortunate in that regard. Obviously, education has always been huge in the area. The health care industry has been huge in the area, too. But I think now you’re finally starting to see the net benefits to having those two sectors being pillars of the region.
I know in the past at least, Worcester always seemed to experience a sort of brain drain. With all of our great colleges and universities here, students weren’t coming back to (or staying) to work for companies like Hanover Insurance. They were going elsewhere. I think it seems now that trend is sort of reversing and young people want to be in the City.
Peter [00:04:48] It has always been very tough to gather precise college student retention data. The Research Bureau has done some good work. Individual colleges have studied college retention rates. HECCMA (the Higher Education Consortium of Central Mass), too.When I first began work for the City, we did a survey of most of the colleges and universities. We conducted a survey of as many students that we could get about their perception of downtown. What did they like? What did they think was missing? And that sort of helped to kind of influence the different recruitment strategies of different businesses or entertainment options and things like that in the downtown. So that was really helpful. And again, I think we’re starting to see more college students stay in the city which is really nice.
Chris [00:05:34] Right around the corner from here is one Forty Five Front Street, the new market rate residents built by Roseland. These brand new apartments filled up in no time. A young colleague of ours here, him and his girlfriend moved in. Typical sort of young couples story. It’s perfect for them. It’s convenient. There’s a lot to walk to. It’s easy for a commuter. It’s great to see that Worcester’s being almost a first choice for young professionals, and that, at least for me, is one of the things I get most excited about with thinking about our potential. When you add attractive living options downtown to the City’s rock beds of universities and health care companies. You are beginning to have something good to work with.
Add then you add into the mix the exciting new ballpark, Polar Park and the WooSox coming to town. I know you and your office have been heavily involved in getting that off the ground. But it wasn’t a slam dunk. I know there were at times skeptics. I know at least I heard you might have as well that the skeptics said, well, they did the same thing in Hartford. And it’s it’s sort of a real question still if that was a net benefit. What makes Worcester different? Why is the ballpark as we as we think it will be?
Peter [00:06:57] Well, I think there’s definitely a lot to unpack there. The Mayor actually said in his inaugural address that the ballpark is a symbolic project of where Worcester is and where we can be. It doesn’t define the City and it doesn’t define economic development right now…given all the other great stuff that’s happening. But it is a really a big win for the City. When you look at the Red Sox evaluating a couple of dozen other cities of where that could be located…and then selecting Worcester, I think it is a testament to all the great work that’s been going on. And when you think about, you know, what else could be there. You know, if you remember a few years prior, there was a slot parlor being considered for the space where the ballpark is being built.. You see these casinos popping up in a lot of cities and many of them have been underperforming. So I think having something a little different than kind of using that same silver bullet that maybe some of these other communities were looking for is a positive. And also putting something there that’s gonna be family fun. Baseball is the type of entertainment that is a win for the rest of the City. You know, not everybody can participate in casinos or want to participate in casinos. So having something that produces good family fun, I think is a is another asset to that. And when you think about kind of, I guess, what is different from the project compared to maybe some of these other cities that have explored this option of stadiums, sports arenas, things like that.
What differentiates Worcester’s proposal was that the private development was an interdependent part of the entire agreement. A lot of times what you see with other cities is a “if they build it, tthe rest of the economic development will follow” type thing. Banking entirely on the proposition that there will be this economic spinoff yet to be determined. And what you see in some of these other cities is that doesn’t always come to fruition. And so it was important from the beginning that we knew that that private investment in that development was committed from the beginning, because then we can actually project what the taxes might look like coming from that development to help support that debt service, obviously, for the construction of the stadium itself.
Chris [00:08:50] And that, that is what makes Worcester a little unique. Whether it’s the mayor, the city manager or other folks from city hall and the business community, you hear the same phrase: public private partnerships. That’s key in economic development. This just doesn’t happen. It’s something you have to work at. You can’t just press the button and have economic development. It’ss not just this movie of the future where you just sit back and eat popcorn and just watch economic development happen. It takes a concerted team effort. From my perspective, what Worcester does in partnership with the private sector is the magic that makes everything work.
Peter [00:09:43] I think to best understand what we’re experiencing now,it helps to go back to the the building blocks of our economic foundation that were laid many years ago. Whether it’s City Square downtown…. or GatewayPark over near WPI ….or the Biotech Park by UMass Medical School….these projects laid the foundation to today’s growth.
The common thread is the collaboration that exists between the public and private sector, Whether it’s the city government working with the administration and the city council, but also our state delegation and the state administration as well, all the way up to the federal government. And our congressman Jim McGovern has had his fingerprints on a lot of the projects that you see around securing federal resources, state resources. And I think that’s where the City plays an important role, It is also public investment that sometimes paves the way for private investment. So whether it’s different grants from EPA for brownfield redevelopmen…. or with the money that we get from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for some of the affordable housing or other infrastructure and other public facilities. Mass Works grant has been really critical for the infrastructure needs of the city, mass development, a key kind of state counterpart in the development world and all sorts of creative financing solutions. Having all of those kind of levels of government working together and then bringing in the private sector as well and kind of all working together to kind of move the ball forward, I think has been really successful.
Chris [00:11:18] To your earlier point, the City is growing and realizing its potential. The ballpark is great! But the city was already moving in a great direction even before people started hearing rumors that the team could be relocating from Pawtucket. So that was really exciting. Recently, we had Craig Blais on for a podcast interview and he mentioned the very same thing. This wasn’t one year and all of a sudden Worcester was amazing. It took a few decades to get us to this point. What do you think? When you’re trying to grow the City’s economic output …and grow the standard of living for the Greater Worcester area. Do you think it’s inevitable that we will come across trade-offs or is there a way to make sure that all stakeholders within the city’s fabric, all their lives are improving? Is that something you in your office should think about?
Peter [00:12:27] We do think about that. And then that’s what’s interesting about economic development. While sometimes we get focused intently on a specifc project, we do with ey toward intersecting with the needs of the community. Quality of life issues, recreational amenities, public education, and of course, public safety. Always focusing the services that people have come to expect from the city.
One thing that fuels all of that is the tax base. And so really a core kind of objective of economic development is to create jobs and expand the tax base. It’s about trying to grow the pie (tax revenue base) ….instead of just looking at things as a zero sum game. It’s about no longer looking at things as if you spend some here….that you’re not spending it elsewhere. More about if we grow the pie, we can do more elsewhere. That’s what’s so important about economic development. When done successfully, it can also drive a lot of other investments that are so necessary to our community.
Chris [00:13:15] I would imagine its easier to allocate resources in a growth environment, right? I’m heavily involved with the Town of Millbury. We know that we can’t do the things a bigger city can do as far as economic development. We know that there are things we can do to grow the tax base. The question we always ask ourselves: How much change do we want for our town? How much change will impact the fabric and culture of the town? It That’s what I think is so impressive about Worcester and how it deals with change. is it still feels like Worcester,
Peter [00:14:16] I agree. That’s why we look for ways to highlight all the great things about the history of Worcester when introducing a forward looking change….., for example, with the Main Street “reimagine project”, it will incorporate public art elements as a testament to Worcester’s history. We try to focus on the role of arts and culture as well in economic development. That’s why we have an entire cultural development division. The cultural development officer reports directly to the City Manager. It helps so much when trying to support cultural initiatives that are crucial to Worcester being scene as a thriving place to live, work and visit. I think is really important when you think of quality of life and whether the city is an interesting, cool place to be. These happens organically from the community. It’s how you get things like the Pow! Wow! Mural Festival. They’ve done over one hundred and twenty five murals in Worcester over the last five years.
Chris [00:15:06] Really impressive art too.
Peter [00:15:06] Pow! Wow! came out of a grassroots energy from artists in the community. Sure, they need certain support from the City from time to time. Jay Anderson in the City Manager’s office in the cultural development division has played an important role. But a lot of that effort and energy came right out of the community . Our cultural institutions have been critical. The Hanover Theatre is a critical asset downtown. They recently celebrated their 10 year anniversary. They bring in about two hundred thousand visitors to the downtown area annually. Other cultural institutions like the Worcester Art Museum and Ecoterium, provide crucial amenities and programs for families in the area. Look at what’s happening in the Printer’s Building too. The Wade family and what they’ve done with the Printers Building on Portland Street..There’s all sorts of different organizations located there. It’s a really a cool thing to see.
We recognize the role of all kind s of people as well as it relates to economic development. We try to highlight Worcester history, its diversity, its culture. And you see that with a lot of the different cultural festivals that happen every year, whether it’s the Latin American Festival or the Caribbean American Festival. All those things working together are important to continue.
Chris [00:16:27] I don’t think anyone imagined we’d be here this quickly. I mean, Worcester has great economic growth. In the commercial real estate business, we see a lot of properties trading at prices no one thought possible. Valuations are rising so quickly.
With so many facets of economic development to juggle….Worcester’s history, culture, diversity…..meshing everything to work well together is impressive. Is there one thing that Worcester has not yet achieved that you consider to be important to focus upon
Peter [00:17:22] I think we can always do more around jobs. It’s not that we haven’t stimulated job creation over the last 5, 10, 20 years. But it critical to Worcester’s continued growth that we try to attract employers, good paying jobs, livable wage jobs and providing those opportunities for the people that are now living here.
Sure, we’ve seen great development on the residential side of the equation. But we don’t want to just be a bedroom community for Boston. It’s nice to have the commuter rail and more work is doing to improve that connection between Worcester and Boston. For the folks that do live here, we want to make sure that there are jobs available for them here as well. And so I think just continuing to try to attract those employers and help with filling some office space. As part of the Polar Park development there will be two office buildings. The newly acquired glass tower at 446 Main Street. These projects and others are counting on attracting new employers to downtown Worcester.
Attracting new companies to Worcester will help with an earlier topic, too: college student retention.Talented grads are looking to join strong growing companies….. whether it’s in financial services or other sectors. In the economic development office we are trying to create as many jobs as possible.
Chris [00:18:35] That makes a lot of sense. You’ve been at City Hall for seven years now. . If you if you had a crystal ball, where do you think Worcester will be in seven years from now?
Peter [00:18:54] That’s a tough one! Worcester was always a place of ideas and innovations and inventions. . As we go into this 21st century economy, I think we’ll have some interesting new developments and hopefully companies and growth around sustainability initiatives. The city has been a leader in that where you look at the old Greenwood Street landfill, we now have the largest municipally owned solar array in New England, replacing all of the street lights with LED and a variety of other sustainability initiatives. The City is making that a priority. I think we’ll see the private sector continue to fuel that growth as well. And when you look at the engineers that are coming out of WPI or some of the cool stuff that’s happening on Becker College with the digital games and simulation technology and things like that, whether it’s, you know, augmented reality, virtual reality, I think I think we have the right ingredients to be an innovator into the 21st century as well.
Chris [00:19:56] I would agree. And we say it often around the office. We say it often with our clients. It’s the most exciting time ever to be to be in Worcester. And a lot of that is due to obviously the success of the business community in the city, but also to you and your colleagues at city hall. And we’re very appreciative of your efforts.
Peter [00:20:17] Well, it’s definitely a team effort, and that’s for sure .A lot of people working together. Not any one organization or one institution. Hopefully we can continue to move this great city of ours forward.