Robert Goddard is commonly known as the father of modern rocketry. His central Massachusetts roots stemmed from his birth and pervaded a long-tenured career in aerospace. He lived much of his life in Worcester and chose nearby Auburn to launch the first liquid-fueled rocket. One could say his heart was in the Heart of the Commonwealth.
Fast forward nearly a century later, downtown Worcester has had another successful launch. It may not be rocket science, but the city is in the middle of one of the largest urban revitalization projects in the state’s history. A growing population, willing investors, and a true sense of community have re-energized Worcester over the last decade. Now the state’s second largest city, long searching for an identity in the shadows of Boston and Cambridge, is standing out on its own.
Investing in Itself
The newest project in the city’s revitalization efforts, titled CitySquare, is helping provide a much-needed facelift to the heart of downtown. It’s slated to create more than 2.2 million square feet of commercial, medical, retail, entertainment and residential space when it’s all finished. The $565 million dollar price tag indicates the sheer size of the multi-phased project. Often criticized for its lack of impact after being introduced over 15 years ago, CitySquare has picked up momentum in recent years.
While simple in theory, the key to the project’s success has been replacing old, deteriorating buildings with new buildings and new businesses to fill them. Case in point: demolishing the former Worcester Common Fashion Outlets mall and replacing it with facilities for Unum (Paul Revere Life Insurance) and Saint Vincent Cancer and Wellness Center. The transformation has created jobs, brought large investments, and positioned the downtown area to thrive for years to come.
In essence, CitySquare aims to make downtown a destination point. It’s about more than just business, as developers want to get people to live, eat and shop downtown. Adding retail and residential space is a major focus of the next phase of the project with rental properties and a Marriott hotel in the works.
The transformation has been as much about renovating current buildings as it has been about building new ones, like in the case of the former Telegram & Gazette. Instead of demolishing it, six of the city’s banks pumped $40 million into the building to create the Innovation Center of Worcester and a satellite campus for Quinsigamond Community College. None of the banks hold a mortgage on the project, showing a renewed belief in the downtown area.
The Center, which opened in late April, provides low-cost incubators for entrepreneurs to build their start-ups. The city hopes that eventual growth will lead them into office buildings around the city.
More Than Buildings
Worcester is evolving beyond its infrastructure. It’s home to nine different colleges and universities, including Holy Cross and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which are largely made up of the age demographic that are driving cities around the country. 18-35-year-olds have a particular interest in living and seeking entertainment in urban environments. As Worcester continues to reinvent itself, it will look to target the demographic and retain them for jobs and to live in the city.
Overall, Worcester’s population has risen 13 percent in the last 25 years (162,000 to 182,000 residents). The 5.6 percent unemployment rate is below the state’s average of 6 percent. The city added nearly 7,000 new jobs from October 2013 to October 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers certainly reflect a city that is trending upward, as residents and businesses are gaining more confidence in making Worcester their long-term home. It would seem, similar to Goddard’s historic rocket launch, the future of Worcester is looking up.