GARDNER — The last recession hit this Central Massachusetts community particularly hard, and, like many old cities struggling with declining industrial bases, the recovery came late, advancing at the slowest of paces.
As recently as a year ago, unemployment approached 10 percent, and the real estate market, which lost nearly half its value in the housing crash, remained depressed. Demand at the city’s main food pantry was so great it had to limit the amount of food it gave out to ensure there was at least something for all struggling families.
Today, five years after the recession officially ended, many people here are beginning to sense a turnaround has finally come. The unemployment rate, while still well above the state average, has dropped 3 percentage points over the past year to just under 7 percent, and home prices, while still one-third below the prerecession peak, are rising again.
At Kitchen Plus Flooring on Main Street, Lynn Leonard, who works in the showroom, said sales are picking up as the housing market improves. At Salvadore Auto, not far from Route 2, owner Steve Salvadore said his dealership is on track to match its prerecession sales of about 1,500 cars per year.
He said he’s hired six employees so far this year to keep up with the increased business. “We see Gardner as a city that’s going to grow, and we’re going to work with that,” said Salvadore.
Gardner, known as the “Chair City,” was once a thriving center of the furniture manufacturing industry. In its heyday, 20 furniture factories operated in this city of 20,000, their workers flooding a bustling downtown of stores, restaurants, and other business.
Phyllis Lakin, 68, whose children’s clothing store is one of Gardner’s oldest businesses, remembers them well. Her father opened the store in 1935 and worked there for more than six decades, into his 90s.
“When I was a child, this was a boomtown,” she said. “Around Christmas, you could barely make it down the street.”
Today, only one furniture maker, Standard Chair, remains. Other small manufacturers still operate here, but major employers are institutions such as Heywood Hospital and Mt. Wachusett Community College. Downtown Gardner is home to restaurants and specialty shops, but foot traffic is low, and several storefronts stand vacant.
Mark Hawke, Gardner’s mayor, took office in 2008, just before the economic free-fall began. State aid dropped sharply. The city laid off at least 20 employees. Business activity dropped sharply.
“When I first took office, there were all sorts of developers knocking on the door saying we want to do this, that, and the other thing,” said Hawke. A month later, the knocking stopped.
But Hawke and others think the city is coming back. They point to growth in Fitchburg and Leominister, both a short drive east along Route 2, and say the tide of recovery, which moves west from Boston, is reaching their city.
Nancy Whitehouse-Bain, a real estate agent in Gardner, said the local housing market is picking up. At the depths of the recession, she said, single-family homes typically sold at $20,000 below listing prices. In the past six months, many have sold just below asking prices.
Dave Urquhart runs a box factory that employs about 140 people. Several small businesses, including a dance studio and consulting firm, have begun renting space in one of his company’s buildings. “It’s almost some form of incubator for entrepreneurs,” he said.
Gardner still faces big challenges. The median household income, $49,000, is more than 25 percent below the state median of $67,000. Nearly one in five families with children live in poverty, compared about 1 in 8 statewide. In a knowledge-based economy, only about 18 percent of adults hold at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 39 percent statewide.
Lakin, the children’s boutique owner, said she sees those challenges in the vacant storefronts downtown. The loss of its furniture plants hurt both Gardner’s economy and its pride, she said. Still, she hopes the future could bring growth.
“You gear your expectations realistically. You don’t go for the moon,” she said. “If you focus on not letting your expectations get out of whack, it could always be worse.”