Business & Tech

Mass. agency buying properties in bid to revive older downtowns

A mural is painted onto the back of the Hanover Theatre in Worcester. A state agency just paid $800,000 to buy a building across from the theater that houses a pawn shop.
Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe/File
A mural is painted onto the back of the Hanover Theatre in Worcester. A state agency just paid $800,000 to buy a building across from the theater that houses a pawn shop.

The Worcester pawn shop with the giant “Checks Cashed” billboard might seem like a strange place to buy. Not really: As the city’s theater district flourishes, it makes sense to replace the structure across from the Hanover Theatre with something a little more welcoming.

Here’s what is strange about the deal: It was a state agency doing the buying. MassDevelopment recently scooped up the property for $800,000 and has put the call out for a developer. The billboard now highlights the theater district instead.

The quasipublic agency plans to spend millions on similar downtrodden properties, with the hopes that putting a shabby building or vacant lot to better use will be a catalyst for positive change. It’s all part of the agency’s “Transformative Development Initiative,” underway since 2014, aimed at improving key parts of older industrial cities. MassDevelopment has spent $3 million on these real estate investments, starting with a Springfield purchase in 2015, with another $4 million budgeted for the new fiscal year.

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Jay Ash remembers strolling through Worcester when he was a college student at Clark. The farther he walked from school, the sketchier it seemed to get. That memory stayed with him when he advocated for the creation of the TDI program as Chelsea’s city manager — as well as in his current role as Governor Charlie Baker’s top economic adviser and chairman of MassDevelopment’s board.

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The state funding isn’t quite as ambitious as proponents wanted. And the pace of property acquisitions seems to be off to a slow start.

But this is how change takes hold in a city — one block at a time.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.