WBDC’s plan in Worcester Business Journal

WB Journal recently posted an article — “Worcester: A Different Kind Of College Town?

You should read it.

Here’s a highlight:

The Worcester Business Development Corp. (WBDC) has worked with stakeholders, including the city’s colleges, to develop a master plan that would focus on bringing parts of the schools to downtown, with the idea that they will bring students, eventually spurring business creation.

“A lot of times, you make the mistake of leading with retail and uses,” said WBDC President and CEO Craig Blais. “We’re sort of thinking of a different approach of bringing the students and density to the area first.”

WBDC’s Three-Part Plan

Blais said the plan includes three major components:

• Construction of twin indoor ice hockey rinks on a vacant 35-acre municipal lot near the Worcester Public Library as part of the proposed theater district, anchored by the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts;

• Graduate student housing linked to internships at businesses downtown; and

• Shared program space for the colleges.

And note Kevin Dowd’s comment:

As President of the WPL Board of Directors, I feel obliged to respond here. When Craig Blais speaks of a “vacant lot” near the Worcester Public Library, he is referring to the library’s parking lot. Far from being “vacant,” the lot provides access to our HALF MILLION visitors annually. In other words, there is no speculation here: the library is already successfully bringing people into the district. While the library is in favor of developing the district–it would certainly benefit us as well– we maintain that it must be done with library interests in the foreground. Parking and easy access for patrons is a major issue: the Library Board has been unanimous in its voice regarding this. We do not believe enough consideration has been given to this issue. The Worcester Public Library is a treasure that must be protected even as we seek to bring greater vitality to the city’s center. Hurting the Library will not help any development project. I would love to see a hockey rink in the city, but not in the McGrath Lot where its impact on the library could be devastating. More public discussion about the hockey rink proposal must take place.

As I’ve said before, the WBDC mentions NO regular residential housing as part of their plan.  They keep mentioning that they’ve worked with “stakeholders”, but they continue to ignore the needs of the largest stakeholder in the area: the Worcester Public Library and its staff and patrons.

We need a mix of uses, and we need a mix of residents and visitors.

What we see in this plan is the WBDC’s (and Craig Blais’s) Silver Bullet approach.

We see this with the Hanover Theatre and the assumption that putting in a theater would be enough to drive economic revitalization at that end of Main Street.

We saw this with Med City and the promises that this would spin off other economic activity downtown.

Despite what the WBDC will have you believe, college students are not a silver bullet.

College students are not enough to support a supermarket downtown, or a shopping center that caters to college students, or whatever other ideas are mentioned in this article.  They should certainly be part of the residential mix, but if the only plans are graduate student housing and a hockey rink, that is not a recipe for retail success.

We need businesses that can be supported for 12 months and that are not gasping for breath in the summer until late August arrives and the students return.

And we sure need a better plan than the WBDC’s typical “build it and they will come” approach to development.