Over the past couple of decades, booming cities have forced people to move to smaller cities nearby. Think San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., or New York and Hoboken, N.J. That kind of boom is happening now in Boston. An hour away, New England’s second-largest city, Worcester, is booming.
“Properties are hot commercially, properties are hot residentially … everyone just wants a piece of Worcester right now. It’s crazy,” said Kate McEvoy, a vice president for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and fifth-generation Worcesterite.
Worcester is seeing its stock rise so fast that it is outpacing just about every other small city in America and could find itself a case study for urban growth.
Just ask Brian Sargent, professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says there is a classic path for a smaller city to boom, and Worcester is following the formula a lot more quickly than anywhere else.
“You need a larger city near a smaller city. You need the larger city to get really expensive fast, and that’s Boston,” Sargent said with a chuckle. “You need the smaller city to undergo underdevelopment, or a lot of times postindustrial depression. Then, as the expensive city prices people out there’ll be some bleed-over from there.”
Home costs in Boston are rising fast, according to a recent Bloomberg analysis. And that was on top of an already booming real estate market. So it’s easy to see why the bleed-over Sargent speaks about is happening. Add to that, Boston is 47 miles — or an hour train ride — away from Worcester.
The city is especially hot right now for tech, biomedical and specialty manufacturing businesses. And the types of services that come with that kind of boom. City officials have greenlighted $2.6 billion in recent construction — new housing, as well as retail and restaurant space. And Worcester is finally growing, after losing residents for much of the past century.
“Professionally it’s a great place to be. Personally and socially it has been just incredible,” said 32-year-old Sam Canary, who works for Morgan Stanley and lives in one of Worcester’s swanky new downtown buildings. He is minutes from a domestic airport and surrounded by nine colleges and universities, including the state university’s teaching hospital.
And by Boston standards, where Canary used to live, rents are incredibly cheap. A new apartment in the kind of building where he lives costs roughly half the price — or less — of a comparable Boston spot.
“I walk to work every day. I go out to eat three or four times every week. The food scene here is great. The social scene here is great. And I get to be here and I can access the world right outside my doorstep,” Canary said.
Worcester is fast becoming a destination for foodies, with celebrity chefs opening restaurants and master brewers setting up shop. The city has plenty of former factories and mill buildings just waiting to be rehabbed.
But it wasn’t always this way. Not too long ago, Worcester was considered a city waiting to die. You would have been hard-pressed to find anyone in Massachusetts who would actually consider moving there.
“It wasn’t anyplace I’d ever come. It made me nervous; it made me scared,” said Michelle Costello, who grew up not too far away in a small town north of the city. “My mother used to tell me all the time, ‘Stay away from Worcester; it’s not a nice place to be.’ ”
Costello now manages a small local chain of coffee shops and eateries called Craft Restaurant Concepts.
Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus, who grew up here, says that for as long as he can remember, Worcester dreamed of a return to its glory days but couldn’t figure out how to get it done.
“It had sunk into the psyche of the city that it wasn’t going to come back, that this was just our fate,” he said. “Probably the worst thing in the world is when people start to believe it, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Until not long ago, Union Station — once a symbol of Worcester’s booming industrial revolution at the turn of the last century — was decrepit and roofless. There was also the Galleria Mall, which was supposed to revitalize downtown but instead killed local businesses, divided the city in half, and then went belly up.
Things really began to change in 2010, when the city started beautifying Worcester Common, the large park outside City Hall. And then it demolished the infernal mall.
Rob Branca, an investor, developer and president of Branded Realty Group, says Worcester’s rise is only just beginning.
“We’re seeing the first 30 percent of Worcester’s rise,” he said. “Prices are going up, but there’s still untapped potential. A lot of historic buildings are being refurbished, and the sky’s the limit here.”
He says there is still a community spirit, and everyone wants to see others succeed for the sake of the city and their own investments.
“I think to some degree we’re making it up as we go along,” Branca said. “Everybody’s eager; everybody’s enthusiastic. The people who are doing things are very pro-Worcester and they want to see everyone succeed. Success begets success.”
But there are people who aren’t benefiting from the boom.
“I think we’re at a critical tipping point in this city, to tell you the truth, where it could go either way at this point,” said Danielle LaRiviere, with the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. She said that over the past 12 months, rents and housing prices have risen too far, too fast for Worcester’s most vulnerable residents.
“We need to remember that we’re pricing our elders out; we’re pricing our young families out,” LaRiviere said. “In order to have a really vital city, we don’t want to end up with some of the crisis we’re seeing in the Boston area.”
It’s even tough for people slightly higher up the economic ladder. “We have first-time homebuyers who are competing against cash investors who are willing to put down any amount of cash for the house so they can either flip it or rent it,” said David Gasser, director of the NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center of Central Massachusetts, which helps first-time homebuyers. “They can compete, but it’s still a substantial barrier for them when the cash investor can go [$15,000, $20,000, $30,000] over asking and they’re on a limited budget.”
Luckily, said both LaRiviere and Gasser, Worcester officials do seem to genuinely care about keeping the city affordable and maintaining its character as a place where immigrants come to experience the American dream.
They say the housing speculation so far hasn’t extended much beyond the city center. But there remains the concern that it’s only a matter of time before affordable housing goes the way of Worcester’s once-vaunted industrial manufacturing.