HOPEDALE — For more than a century, the Draper Corp. factory stood at the center of this small town, serving as its economic base and prime benefactor. But in 1980, the company, once the country’s leading producer of textile machinery, closed for good.
Nearly 40 years later, the vast brick factory still looms over the Mill River, a ghost of a bygone era. Despite multiple plans for redevelopment, the complex remains a vacant eyesore, casting a long shadow over the town’s efforts to reinvent itself.
“When Draper left, it left a hole in Hopedale’s psyche,” said Tom Wesley, a selectman in this town of 6,000, about 30 miles southwest of Boston.
Now, after years of false starts and dashed hopes for the property, the Board of Selectmen has introduced a new plan — a $50 million mixed-use development that would preserve some of the property’s historic character.
Calling the property a “scar across the center of Hopedale,” the plan envisions more than 500 residential units and as much as 175,000 square feet of retail, industrial, or recreational use, an ambitious project that would transform the quiet town center.
“This is Hopedale’s first real chance to define itself,” Wesley said. “This plan is the result of more than 30 years of frustration.”
In keeping with the longstanding struggles to redevelop the property, there’s a catch. The plan calls for Phil Shwachman, who owns the factory and a number of surrounding parcels, to donate his land to the town, estimating that cleaning up the property will cost more than it’s worth. If he doesn’t, officials say they would consider seizing the land by eminent domain.
Shwachman has “put a stranglehold on the development of the town” by allowing the factory to sit vacant since he bought the property nearly 30 years ago, Wesley said.
But Shwachman, who owns a real estate company in Worcester, said his properties are worth far more than that, and bristled at the prospect of the town taking his land without market-rate compensation.
“I’m getting railroaded here,” Shwachman said. “I won’t stand for that.”
He said he has spent millions on the complex over the years, demolishing 14 structures, clearing debris and furnishings from the buildings, and disposing of a “tremendous volume of asbestos.”
In 2007, Shwachman participated in a town study of the property and was interested in pursuing development then, he said. As a result, he was surprised to hear that town officials had been meeting for the past year to discuss redevelopment plans without notifying him.
Wesley and Town Administrator Steve Sette said town officials didn’t tell Shwachman because they didn’t think he would be interested.
Sette said the town is willing to purchase the land from Shwachman but hasn’t been presented with a price. While the plan’s budget includes $120,000 in legal costs related to eminent domain, Sette said that option is “always the last resort.”
Despite the clash, Shwachman said he agrees with town officials that it’s well past time to redevelop the site into “a productive part of the Hopedale community again.”
That goal has been vexingly elusive. The momentum from the town study in 2007 was quickly stalled by the economic downturn, and by the time officials revisited the issue, the Grafton & Upton Railroad had bought the railroad that runs through the property, adding a new complication.
The railroad’s owner, Jon Delli Priscoli, has agreed to work with the town as a developer and invest $10 million in the project. The town will also contribute $10 million, Sette said, and officials hope to fund the rest through grants.
Delli Priscoli, the developer behind the revival of the Edaville Family Theme Park in Carver, says he sees tremendous potential in the Draper site.
“I don’t know why Hopedale has waited so long,” he said.
Hopedale was founded as a utopian commune in 1842 by prominent minister and abolitionist Adin Ballou. When the commune failed several years later, its assets were taken over by wealthy community members Ebenezer and George Draper, who eventually established the Draper Corporation.
The town’s street names harken back to the community’s aspirational origins — Hope, Peace, Social, and Union — and the Draper legacy runs deep.
The Town Hall, a 2½-story mass of Milford granite and reddish-brown sandstone, was dedicated in 1887 as a memorial to George Draper, who had planned, built, and paid for the building. Across the street from Town Hall is the Unitarian Church, also planned and built by the Drapers.
Outside the Bancroft Memorial Library (a gift to the town from a superintendent of the Draper plant) is another Draper-funded gift, an elaborate marble fountain sculpted in Rome and shipped to Hopedale in 1904.
Hopedale is exceptional for its origin story and close ties to the Drapers, said local historian and longtime resident Dan Malloy.
“It’s almost impossible in New England to find anything quite like it,” Malloy said.
But decades after Draper’s last employees locked the factory doors behind them on Aug. 29, 1980, residents are ready to move on.
“We are past the nostalgia,” Wesley said. “We’ve run out of patience.”
At a public hearing about the plan in mid-July, some community members expressed concern about the impact of more than 500 residential units on such a small town. But officials say the change would be gradual, allowing the school system and police department to adjust over time.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this town that doesn’t think we need to take the most blatant eyesore in town and do something with it,” said Carole Mullen, who directs the town’s Council on Aging. “The question is what’s right for Hopedale.”