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Worcester: then and now

downtown41
The new Franklin Street photo by Gordon Davis

By Gordon Davis

Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus, Jr., is optimistic about the development of Worcester. Recently, he said: “Worcester has seen close to $3 billion in investment over the past five years. This year, home prices are up 5 to 8 percent. Rental rates are up 8 percent. And how could you miss the new hotels already redefining our skyline? Those hotels are being built for a reason. Our hotels are consistently full.”

Mr. Augustus is right to be happy with the new developments such as hotels and luxury apartments. This type of development has been a long time coming and is part of a historical cycle for the city.

Before this cycle of hotels, apartments and entertainment, there was the Worcester Center Galleria and its remake, Worcester Commons Outlets. Many in the city have the same optimism expressed by Mr. Augustus with his proclamation: “Worcester’s time is now.” Unfortunately, Mr. Augustus still sees downtown Worcester as the Worcester of the 1940s, a time when most people did not own cars. The importance of downtowns to cities in Mass. started to decline with a burgeoning suburbia and the families in them buying cars and driving to malls, like the old Shoppers World in Framingham, to shop. Shoppers World was exciting and cutting edge in 1955. It was the first shopping mall. Today, many shopping malls are abandoned ghost malls. The Greendale Mall in Worcester is near that state.

Development in downtown Worcester is based, to a large extent, on the transfer of the operations of St. Vincent Hospital from Vernon Hill. The transfer was subsidized by city taxes. It is not certain yet if the city will recover this money. The new apartments and condos being built in our downtown is a new phenomenon for Worcester. To some extent, our downtown will become a bedroom community for commuters going by trains to Boston. More important, it will become a neighborhood, like Main South or Vernon Hill. This is new and it seems to have gone unnoticed. Services for this new neighborhood, like a grocery store, will likely be established.

Since the early 1800s Worcester’s industries have been cyclical. With the water power of the Blackstone River, textiles and clothing were manufactured until the factories moved South in search of cheaper labor. In the later 1800s the metal industries developed in our city. Barbed wire was invented and manufactured in Worcester, as well as cables and processed steel. I worked at U.S. Steel as a young man and made oil well cables. As we know, the metal industries moved overseas. For a while, computers, such as minicomputers, were manufactured in the Worcester area. The personal computer signaled the death knell for computer manufacturing in this area. Today it is biotech that is the major industry here.

I hope you can see my point: Industries come and go. The Worcester area is not an exception to this rule. It is worrisome that Mr. Augustus did not mention what is being done regarding the industries of the future. There is a question of whether his vision includes the next cycle of industry. To quote former president Bill Clinton: It’s the economy, stupid.

Therefore, the city manager’s proclamation of “Worcester’s time is now” is not really a vision for the future.