Worcester Plans A New Economy

By Sarah Birnbaum

Nov. 16, 2011

WORCESTER — About 3 years ago, entrepreneur Phil Lambert was looking for a place to locate his drug research startup. He and his partner considered the thriving biotech hub in Cambridge, but ultimately decided on Worcester, 40 miles west of there and known as the “Heart of the Commonwealth.”

“Worcester for us, I think of it almost as like, location, location, location. Because we wanted somewhere ideally that was relatively close to our client base — and so it’s Cambridge, Lexington, Boston… all those areas close to town where all the biotechs and pharmaceuticals are set up. We also wanted a location, if we could get it, that was cost-effective,” he said.

He was lured by the new, cheap lab spaces and the skilled workforce: 

“There’s a lot of really great people out this way. Now, there’s a lot of great people, obviously, in Cambridge but a lot of people live out this way, even the folks that travel into Cambridge every day the same as I used to do.”

A plan to attract new business

None of Worcester’s selling points that attracted Lambert and others are here by accident. They are a product of the political, business and civic community coming together 25 years ago with one goal: to turn Worcester’s economy around. 

At one time, Worcester was an industrial powerhouse. In the late 1800s, it had one of the most diverse manufacturing bases in the country. The range of products it produced rivaled giant cities like New York and Philadelphia. Metalworking and machine-building became the city’s core industries and immigrants came from all over the world to work in its factories.

But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, manufacturing here was in decline. Inflation was in the double-digits. People were out of work. So the Chamber of Commerce got together to come up with a plan. Dr. Abraham Haddad, a local dentist, volunteered to lead the effort.

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“We looked at what was happening, surveyed and spent 3 years in strategic thinking,” he said.

The team concluded that because Worcester was home to the UMass Medical School, Tufts Veterinary School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the city's greatest untapped resource was in the biotechnology and medical fields. 

Coming together to create tomorrow's workforce
Then Haddad saw something remarkable happen. Worcester’s entire community — manufacturers, labor, government — put competing interests aside and focused its efforts on reinvigorating the economy and putting a plan in motion.

“In the first meeting in ‘81, we had 70 participants in the community, including unions, neighborhood leadership, politicians, bankers, academic leaders — the whole array of people,” Haddad said.

Worcester’s economic development plan was so forward-thinking that it even reached into local primary and secondary schools. Haddad and the planning committee collaborated with the Mass. education department to write new science and math curricula to begin training kids as early as elementary school to go into the biotech field when they were older.

Today, the Worcester area is home to about 150 biotech companies. Walking around the town, new construction is everywhere, on streets with names such as Innovation Drive and Research Drive.

A question of scale: new jobs versus old

But how is old, industrial Worcester faring?

According to WGBH’s partners at MassINC, Worcester lost 3,000 manufacturing jobs over the last 10 years. And that’s on top of decades of job losses in manufacturing.

Ben Forman, MassINC’s research director, said the biomedical and high-tech sectors can’t replace all the middle-skill, middle-income jobs once provided by manufacturing:

“The whole challenge not just for Worcester, but for everywhere, is how do you replace those positions?” he said. “Massachusetts is in the weird position that it’s done excellent at creating good-paying jobs. That’s what every state wishes it could do. But we have more of this challenge of how do we create jobs for middle-class families.”

Worcester has proven it can create a new American Dream. But to include all its residents, the city may need another major collaborative effort to ensure its working-class past is part of its innovative future.

worcester jobs data

Data show that while technology jobs have grown in Worcester in the last decade, they aren't enough to make up for declines in manufacturing. (MassINC)

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