Biopark could be latest sign of Worcester’s revival
You’ve probably heard about the Worcester Renaissance before: a remade downtown, expanding universities, a bustling entertainment district. Oh, and there's that minor league baseball team coming to town.
Now, the Woo is poised to extend the buzz to biomanufacturing.
The Worcester Business Development Corp. and WuXi Biologics are in the final stages of negotiations to kick-start a 44-acre biotech manufacturing campus at the former Worcester State Hospital.
The Chinese biotech unveiled plans last June for a $60 million plant, bringing at least 150 new jobs, with help from millions in state and local subsidies. Those plans apparently weren’t set in the stone at the time, but they seem to be solidifying now.
Craig Blais, CEO of the agency that owns the site, says WuXi is expected to pick a developer within the next few weeks, to build the Worcester facility. (Pitches for the project at WuXi’s HQ in China have gone well so far, Blais says, despite the trade dispute between the two countries.) Coincidentally, the Worcester Business Development Corp. has hired Boston agency Proverb to craft a marketing plan and branding for the “biopark” that will be rolled out over the same time frame.
Why is WuXi so important? Worcester, despite all its recent successes, still could use an injection of major new employers, in part to provide jobs that would keep more of the graduates from the city’s nine colleges and universities around. This new marketing plan for the biopark might be convincing. But an anchor tenant could prove to be more important. Success begets success.
Fortunately for Worcester, that maxim has proven itself time and again in New England’s second-largest city. Commuters who want an urban lifestyle without Boston prices are now flocking there, many drawn by the constant parade of restaurant and shop openings. Worcester’s airport, long a money pit, is finally looking up as Massport lines up new flights. An economic index developed at Assumption College indicates the Worcester area economy grew by 3.2 percent last year, the highest growth rate since the late 1990s.
Businesses outside of Central Mass. are paying attention. Witness Rockland Trust’s opening of a business banking and wealth management office there, to be followed by a retail branch, or accounting and advisory firm BlumShapiro’s decision to open a satellite location downtown.
The PawSox ballpark, of course, is the most prominent example. Chairman Larry Lucchino was blown away by the local corporate support that the team received. Lucchino already had a signature sponsor, Polar Beverages, for the park by the time the decision was made in August to leave Rhode Island. (Worcester’s willingness to backstop the bonds to pay for the ballpark construction, though, was inevitably a bigger factor.) The minor league baseball team’s 2021 move is catalyzing apartment and hotel construction in the Canal District, just south of downtown, not to mention some badly needed infrastructure improvements.
Though it took a while, the demolition and conversion of the old Galleria mall — Worcester’s Berlin Wall — into the mixed-use CitySquare complex is widely considered to be a success. But many older downtown buildings remain — like, say, the Midtown Mall — that cry out for vast improvements or redevelopment.
Civic leaders are stepping up their efforts to put various tired or boarded-up sites, such as the shuttered Worcester State Hospital, back to productive use. City Manager Ed Augustus wants to get more properties onto the tax rolls; the city’s public works yard near the Shrewsbury Street restaurant district could be next. And there’s no sign that the market forces that are reshaping the city, block by block, will abate anytime soon.
The biggest driving factor, though, may be an intangible one: community psychology. Conviction has replaced long persistent doubts about the city’s potential. Success begets success.