Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the brutal impact it has had on the country’s economy, development interest remains quite high in Worcester.
In fact, it seems the city has not missed a beat in that regard.
While development interest in other cities has slowed or all but come to a standstill in some cases, Worcester has been able to maintain and even build on the pre-pandemic momentum it was enjoying.
One only has to look at all the business that has been taken up by city’s regulatory boards and commissions over the past six months, whether it be actual project plans or zoning changes to facilitate future development.
The fact that boards and commissions have been so busy during the pandemic underscores that continued interest in Worcester, whether it be in the downtown or the neighborhoods.
Things are indeed still happening in Worcester.
Among some of the projects moving through the regulatory process include the renovation of the long-vacant, historic Cheney-Ballard Building at 517 Main St. into housing on its upper four floors, with a retail/commercial use on the ground level.
A 111-unit apartment complex is proposed in the Greendale area, and the developer of a proposed second hotel in the Washington Square area is still moving forward with those plans despite the economic beating the hospitality industry has taken during the pandemic.
Zoning changes have also been taken up to facilitate the redevelopment of vacant properties in Main South, including the proposed renovation of the former Ionic Avenue Boys and Girls Club building into an arts center, as well as converting four former mill buildings in the Lagrange Street and Oread Street areas into a mix of commercial and residential uses.
Other zoning changes have been also made for former manufacturing properties in the Lamartine Street and Hermon Street areas to provide greater flexibility in their redevelopment into other uses.
A new developer has taken over a proposed project to expand the size of a continuing-care retirement community off Salisbury Street. Salisbury Hill now consists of 84 condominium units for people 55 and older; the new developer wants to add 117 more housing units on the 43.6-acre site.
Table Talk Pies also moved quickly to win approval of its plans to build a new 135,000-square-foot production headquarters at 58 Gardner St. The company broke ground for the new building last month and it is expected to be up and running next year.
City officials said the company’s relocation opens a new redevelopment opportunity for Table Talk’s existing production facility at Kelley Square that is likely to result into an adaptive reuse complementary to Polar Park, resulting in new tax revenues for the city.
Meanwhile, momentum is also building at The Reactory, the new 46-acre biomanufacturing parking being developed by the Worcester Business Development Corp. on the grounds of the former Worcester State Hospital.
WuXi Biologics, a global Chinese manufacturing company, has taken ownership of its parcel and begun construction on a $60 million, more than 100,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility. In addition, the WBDC announced last month the sale of another parcel at The Reactory to Galaxy Life Sciences, which is looking to invest at least $50 million to create a multitenant building.
“These milestones at The Reactory build upon the palpable momentum in furthering the life sciences cluster in the city,” said City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr.
Augustus credits the city’s ability to maintain and build upon its previous momentum to the Executive Office of Economic Development’s ability to maintain continuity of the department’s operations, including the critical role of the boards and commissions under the Planning and Regulatory Services Division.
Those board and commissions have been able to continue holding public meetings during the pandemic, albeit in a virtual mode, thus enabling the many projects that have come before them to move forward without delay.
But the city’s focus hasn’t just been on bringing in new business and developers to Worcester.
The Office of Economic Development has also been busy trying to provide existing businesses some help during the pandemic.
One of the first successful initiatives the office was able to quickly launch after the pandemic first hit the region and forced the shutdown of many businesses was the implementation of the COVID-19 Small Business Resiliency Grant Program.
The program leveraged federal Community Development Block Grant funding so grants could be provided to eligible small businesses. Two rounds of funding were provided, with one in March and one in May.
“Our dedicated staff worked overtime to ensure these funds were implemented as quickly as possible to so many small businesses that didn’t know if or how they could pay their bills.”
Peter Dunn, the city’s chief development officer, told the City Council Economic Development Committee last week that his office provided 271 businesses with grant funding in the range of $5,000 to $10,000, totaling just under $1.9 million.
Dunn noted that 59% of the businesses that received a grant were owned by people of color while 43% were owned by women. Also, each of the business owners were from low- and moderate-income households.
“We already had the infrastructure in place to adapt very quickly and be able to provide these businesses with the financial assistance they needed,” he said.
In fact, Worcester proved to be a leader in leveraging federal block grant funds for that type of small-business assistance. Augustus said the city fielded inquiries from many other communities about emulating the city’s program.
“That was a lifeline to many of these businesses,” said District 2 Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson, who chairs the council’s Economic Development Committee. “Without this program we would have lost a lot of these businesses.”
The Office of Economic Development, through its Planning and Regulatory Services Division, has also played a key role to help restaurant owners succeed under restrictions for reopening. It quickly put together a temporary outdoor dining program that enabled restaurant owners to use outdoor spaces to allow for additional capacity and make reopening a more viable endeavor for them.
So far, 96 businesses have participated in the program and the office is now in the process of developing a proposal to expand outdoor dining options at restaurants on a permanent basis, through zoning and related regulatory changes.
All is not rosy, though. Some businesses still face big problems and are struggling to survive.
But what’s happening in Worcester, even amid the pandemic, is a lot more than can be said about many other places.
Contact Nick Kotsopoulos at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NCKotsopoulos