Worcester Real Estate Podcast: Craig Blais, President and CEO of WBDC

October 2019
Join the Worcester Real Estate Podcast host Chris Naff as he speaks with Craig Blais (WBDC) about Worcester’s “incredible renaissance” and why he believes “it is definitely our time now”.

0:50 …What’s been driving Worcester to have the recognition it’s gotten?

2:20 …Twenty years ago, when a group of architects from Maine were visiting Worcester. I described a billion-dollar development agenda that was underway. I learned later the group “wanted to know what that guy was smoking, because they wanted some, too!”

5:35 …Worcester has just had an incredible renaissance. It’s definitely our time now.

9:19 …A key piece (of the renaissance) was Mercantile Plaza. A 600,000 square foot (redeveloped) center in downtown Worcester

11:07 The Red Sox (coming to Worcester) has given us national recognition

12:30 …We’ve quietly filled the Biotech Park with good paying jobs in health care and health sciences. And now, the park is now being expanded to include bio manufacturing

15: 35 We are an affordable urban experience.

Chris [00:00:05] Craig Blais. Welcome to the Worcester real estate podcast.

Craig [00:00:10] Thank you for having me. Glad to do it.

Chris [00:00:13] So this is the launch of our podcast here at Keller and Sadowsky. I’m really honored that you are our inaugural guest because.

Craig [00:00:21] I’m thrilled and honored.

Chris [00:00:22] Yeah. Well if there is a very important person in this very important City you are it, sir.

Craig [00:00:27] I’m not sure about that. Thank you very much. You’re very kind.

Chris [00:00:30] Well I do appreciate you coming to our office today. A lot I want to pick your brain about where we are as a city, how we got here, you know, what’s been what’s been sort of the catalyst of all that we’ve been seeing so. I know you’ve been involved in the City a long long time. What do you think you know over the last, you know. 10 years. What’s been driving Worcester to have the recognition it’s gotten?

Craig [00:01:00] Let me let me go back a little further than that. Let me let me go back to the early 90s and again I put a big disclaimer on this. I’m going to explain this because I started working in development in the city in the early 90s. However this was not all about me and all about me individually. I’m honored to have played a role….

…On a lot of these projects but there have been so many people from political leaders to the Chamber of Commerce to brokers who have just all pulled together in an incredible way. Since that time to bring Worcester where it is today. I tell the story and if you don’t mind I’ll tell this little story which is a very very interesting story back in the early 90s. We were building our convention center.

…And we were trying to figure out a way to to figure that out how the convention center was going to relate to then the successful centrum and how that was going to relate to opening up downtown.

…And it was complicated from a financing point of view in that. And we had finally figured it all out. And it was actually under construction and the group from Portland Maine came down and they wanted to see how we did that because they were trying to figure out a way to expand the Cumberland Civic Center.In Portland Maine. And I sat on the corner stood I should say on the corner of then Worcester Center Boulevard which is now Major Taylor and east central street which…

…I stood in that corner and I described a billion-dollar development agenda that was underway and it included eliminating this old fire station on the corner and turning it into a hotel. This old abandoned concrete building that had pigeons flying out of it that was going to be a regional courthouse one day the convention center that was gonna be attached to the to the DCU to the then Centrum and then across the street there were these dirt parking lots and a railroad track that ran through a bunch of very dilapidated buildings and they said someday There’s gonna be a 250 million dollar health care facility there. And if you look closely across.yhere is a train station that has weeds growing trees growing out of it no towers that’s going to be an intermodal center and we’re going to bring back the mall we’re going to reopen the mall and stand on that corner and spend the whole development.

Chris [00:03:32] And everyone there thinks you’re crazy.

Craig [00:03:33] They thought I was absolutely crazy and they went back but this is the best part of the story. Fast forward about 15 years. Eighteen years after that day I was asked to go down and do a before and after at the convention center. For a group of architects that were coming in from all over New England before and after shots of these buildings. And I went through it building by building and showed how we essentially transformed and we implemented that billion dollar agenda. And what I got done went back to the table we were in the Convention Center which has been very successful. The guy came up to me with a beard and he said I I work in Portland Maine. He said I came down here 20 years ago and stood on a corner with you. And we got back in the bus and said whatever that guy is smoking we’d like some…

…Because there was no way he said. But my god the city did it. It’s just incredible. I tell that because those major projects while they didn’t attract the private investment that we wanted at the time.

…They laid a very important foundation in Worcester which I would say and I would argue that that brought about the Mass College of Pharmacy to make their decision the completion of the biotech park. That decision that was made City Square which then came along. And we ended up tearing down the mall and creating those development pads too. All of it. The group that formed the Mayo group to buy downtown and invest the handover theater you think of all the projects that preceded that now. Now it is so it really is so I’m so proud to sit with the city manager on Friday morning at our Coordinating Council and we actually argue about what private development would work on a parcel.

…And that is a big significant change and it does take that long. It takes 20 years in the development cycle. So Worcester has just had an incredible renaissance. It’s definitely our time now.

Chris [00:05:44] I agree.

Craig [00:05:45] And it’s our time and we now are seeing that private investment as a result of those anchor projects that were successfully done by a lot of people political people governors who believed in Worcester from the Cellucci administrator to Weld, Patrick the airport a whole focus on transportation with the 146 project that was extremely important and then obviously commuter rail to Boston just opened up and those projects take a long time. But now we’re seeing the fruits of the labor that that was had during that during that period.

Chris [00:06:21] I’d like to say you know Worcester was has always been the second largest city in New England. It just sort of took time for the city to realize its full potential and to your point that can’t happen overnight.

Craig [00:06:34] Right.

Chris [00:06:34] And it it seems that we’ve figured out and I can’t include I say we as a city you know. We figured out that it takes partnership between the public sector and the private sector. And it seems like we’re all heading in the same direction chasing the same goal.

Craig [00:06:53] Absolutely. And let me tell you an interesting point on that we union station it was it’s an iconic building it’s got such historic significance. I actually was a young project manager on that project and I didn’t really understand the significance of the completion that that building would have on the whole entire region. Not just Worcester everyone sent off someone has a story that they sent someone off to the military by train they sent someone off to college…

…At that location. And so this is an interesting point of how to your point of how things have changed. We were actually the construction contract was signed. All of the design was done the federal and state money and city money was in place and construction had started. And we held a meeting to give an update and people were showing up at the meeting saying you will never build it. That will never happen. And…

Chris [00:07:55] Doubters everywhere.

Craig [00:07:57] There was. No one believed because they were promised so much so many times. And there were failures.

…And so it shows now. And it’s interesting to fast forward to come and see the Red Sox announcement with two thousand people showed up at the common…

…To welcome the Pawtucket Red Sox to Worcester last last year at this time. That just shows you how the attitude in Worcester has changed they are believers. The city manager will talk about it all the time and the most important part of this whole development piece is the confidence that Worcester now has in itself. And it’s an important piece.

Chris [00:08:33] And, that radiates.

Craig [00:08:35] Absolutely.

Chris [00:08:35] Through all the key stakeholders in the city.

Craig [00:08:37] And developers who are coming in sense it.

…Everyone’s excited. They’re willing to work with you. They’re willing to work hard to get what you need to do. Done. And we’re seeing it now as I mentioned. We have developers competing for parcels back in the 90s when the TIFF legislation went through. We would sit around and argue how many things we could lay on a parcel to beg someone to buy it. And now……

Chris [00:09:03] It’s different.

Craig [00:09:03] There’s competition.

Chris [00:09:04] Whole different game. I mean just in our office we’re seeing there are developed local developers local investors statewide and also folks from outside the region. They want to come to Worcester.

Craig [00:09:17] Absolutely.

Chris [00:09:17] They’re seeing what’s happening.

Craig [00:09:19] I think the deal one of the important project that went forward in Kelleher and Sadowsky were a key piece of that was Mercantile Plaza where we sit today That project if you think about it now. There were a group of Boston investors who came in and took a chance on Worcester. They did what they said they were going to do. And then it was bought out by local investors with local banks.

…That’s an incredible story. 600,000 square foot center in downtown Worcester. That the local banks and local investors believe and that’s an incredible story. Now now to see where this property is a true anchor in the downtown area.

Chris [00:10:09] It absolutely is and when I bring either friends relatives or clients through the mercantile center they’re surprised that this actually exists in Worcester because 10 or 15 years ago they probably could not vision as high class a facility that we have here… Super important.

Craig [00:10:27] You’re absolutely right.

Chris [00:10:28] You mentioned the Red Sox and that’s that’s gotten a lot of attention obviously the last couple years and rightfully so. What I’ve been wondering ……is the idea that Worcester sort of it had already arrived. It’s great to have the team. It’s it’s amazing. I’m super excited everyone is but Worcester was already on the path to success.

Craig [00:10:59] You know it’s a very good point. The City was absolutely on the path of success. We would have still been doing all of this without the Red Sox.

Chris [00:11:07] Right.

Craig [00:11:07] I will tell you what I think the Red Sox have done it’s given us the regional and even I would argue national recognition that we deserve because of the history and the name of the Boston Red Sox to have their affiliate a top affiliated team located here. People took notice and they took notice far and wide that sort of polarizes if you will excuse the pun from the Polar Stadium that was sort of polarizing and it if we have any developer that comes in from the outside that is looking at something they mentioned the Red Sox they mentioned the Red Sox.

…We’ve got Boston new stations that were covering it. Now they’ve even made national news stations. So Worcester got recognized…. NPR picked up stories across the country for Worcester so that in itself is huge…

…for the city. In a different way though that proj, there were projects that were creeping along here and making their way through. Very successful projects that do not get that notoriety.

…Not get that type of success but they are critically important and we referenced the whole idea of the medical school being cited here having a teaching hospital in the UMass system.

…It really prompted the whole biotech cluster to be done with the Massachusetts Biotechnology Park and we’ve quietly filled that park with good paying jobs in the right area in the health care and health sciences and that having the research hospital a teaching hospital there even a private for profit hospital with the St. Vincent system being here as well. That’s critically important for jobs…

…And long term and all of that so that that park is now being expanded to include now bio manufacturing where we’re building upon the success of our new cluster; biotechnology.

…And, as a result, we’re going back to our roots of manufacturing.

…We had a very successful manufacturing base here and now we’ve been we’ve been able to pivot into it into bio manufacturing which I think quietly is very important.

…It’s going to be very important jobs at all levels for Worcester.

Chris [00:13:27] And that’s I think another situation where public sector private sector had to work together to get to that point. We always had the talent to to have a biomed park and did it do bio manufacturing. We have great universities in and around Worcester. It’s just like you said development cycles take a long long time.

…But to your point that that area of the city if you will doesn’t get a lot of press but it’s moving the needle for us in a really meaningful way.

Craig [00:14:00] Absolutely. The Red Sox are great. I think it put us on the national level national scene if you will but we quietly Kevin O’Sullivan the former head of the NBI the mass biomedical initiative used to say come out to Worcester we have this thing called the Collaborative Gene here which is very appropriate for that Industry, where we check all the egos at the door…

…And everyone works together to get stuff done. And he proved that time and time again. Look we landed. It wasn’t it wasn’t a mistake that we landed AbbVie and it wasn’t by coincidence. It was a very organized effort to recruit them to the park. And now look at them. They they produce Humera which is like a 12 billion dollar drug. Right here in Worcester. It was researched founded here and now it’s produced here.

…That’s incredible! And that doesn’t get the press You know that you would like it to get right but there are a lot of good still good stories like that here here in the city and now importantly to your point investors can get a return.

…And that’s that’s really important so for for the overall economy of the city.

Chris [00:15:16] And it’s it’s growing it’s growing very fast but it’s still I think there are I think there are more opportunities presented here than say Boston.

Craig [00:15:26] There are.

Chris [00:15:27] To to your point on that return.

Craig [00:15:28] And I think if I were to find a magic wand and I could take the city’s marketing effort for young the younger generation coming up the millennials that are looking for a place I would market this with a lot of money. I would be out trying to brand this to be the most affordable urban experience in New England.

…We are an affordable urban experience.

Chris [00:15:54] It’s absolutely right.

Craig [00:15:55] It’s urban. It’s compact condensed. It’s….

Chris [00:15:59] Walkable…

Craig [00:16:00] Walkable…. With a hometown feel but yet very affordable. And if you if you want if you get on public transportation and go experience a very expensive urban experience in Boston.

Chris [00:16:11] Yes.

Craig [00:16:11] So.. and you can play a lot with that.

Chris [00:16:14] Yeah.

Craig [00:16:14] We are definitely in affordable urban experience and even with the growth when we’re not going to catch up to the prices and what it costs in Boston.

Chris [00:16:25] And as a millennial myself that’s something we’re looking for a lot of my friends either at a college at a high school they look at Boston as this great opportunity to have a really cool lifestyle. However that comes at a cost.

Craig [00:16:39] Right.

Chris [00:16:40] I fully believe most of what you can experience in Boston you can experience here. We really have created that 18 hour cycle and it’s not just the Canal District anymore. It’s a downtown area is thriving. I was here last Friday night. There were was young people everywhere in downtown Worcester. You didn’t see that not so long ago.

Craig [00:17:00] So a lot of good examples. I’m always a good storyteller. We’re good good examples if you look at Franklin Street what it was even five years ago 10 years ago Franklin Street had a lot of vacant storefronts and a lot of vacant offense office kind of residences. Now you walk along Franklin Street to the to the twenty eight hundred seat performing arts center at the Hanover theater you passed by a comedy club.

…Your soon to pass by a black box theater. You pass by a pop up artist district. It’s just incredible. All of the restaurants now are starting to fill in because those venues are bringing people back to the downtown. So there are a lot of things to do in Worcester besides. And we built upon the success of the DCU Center.

…On that original Centrum with the concerts and the hockey and and that’s so we really now have grown up and we act like a much bigger city.

Chris [00:17:53] Yeah. So it really took that grand vision that billion dollar development vision way back in the early 90s to get to this point.

Craig [00:18:03] I believe so.

Chris [00:18:05] It’s pretty incredible.

Craig [00:18:05] if laying the groundwork laid the foundation for private investment and now it’s that we’re seeing that that’s happened.

Chris [00:18:11] Last question before we go.

Craig [00:18:12] Sure.

Chris [00:18:14] Five or 10 years from now where do you hope we are as a city as a region.

Craig [00:18:19] Sure. I would like to see in five or 10 years much more density in the downtown.

…I don’t think you can ever become dense enough. And I say that I think the push for housing is extremely important.

…Housing solves a lot of problems. One we want to have affordable and we want to have market rate and we want to have a good mix but we want we want a lot of it. We want density in the downtown. What is density do it prevents crime. It’s proven everywhere. It allows you to be a much more cleaner and active downtown but more importantly it brings retail it brings commercial retail.

Chris [00:19:01] Yes.

Craig [00:19:02] Where the people are the retail show up. We’ve proven it to date with restaurants.

…And now we have to take the next step and over the next five to 10 years I would love to see much more commercial retail in the downtown. With With With Downtown being called the downtown neighborhood where there are a lot of people that live here and work here and obviously buy and play and entertain in the city. So I think we’re on track to do that and I think that should continue to be the focus.

Chris [00:19:32] I I think it’s just such an exciting time to be in the city. I love coming to work here every day. Being downtown there’s so much to do is so much exciting things to work on. That’s all possible because of folks like yourself.

Craig [00:19:47] Thank you very much.

Chris [00:19:47] And we we as a city owe a debt of gratitude to you and everyone you’ve been working with all these years. So thank you very much.

Craig [00:19:54] You bet.

2019-10-18T13:39:13+00:00