August 6, 2012 | last updated August 7, 2012 3:41 pm

Road To Revival: Blackstone Valley Towns Continue To Reap Benefits Of Route 146

Edd Cote
Michael C. O'Brien of Galaxy Development in Auburn stands at Route 146 and Boston Road in Sutton, the location of the only traffic light on the Massachusetts stretch of the highway. A $6 million project is being planned for the intersection, where O'Brien intends to build a shopping plaza anchored by a supermarket.
Edd Cote
James Coull, the developer of South Sutton Commerce Park: "We're fortunate that we have a piece of property, one of the few in Massachusetts with all the permits in place that you need to get started if you're a large user."

The Impact on Worcester

Not to be forgotten, Worcester -- the northern end of Route 146 -- has reaped benefits that may otherwise never have happened without the construction project. While there are intangible benefits to having a more convenient connection to the Massachusetts Turnpike and Providence, arguably, the biggest financial impact for the city so far has been the 43-acre Worcester Crossing project, which generates more than $1 million in property taxes each year. It includes:

  • A 220,000-square-foot WalMart Supercenter, which opened in 2010. The company said the project created 700 jobs.
  • A 136,000-square-foot Sam's Club, which opened earlier this year after relocating from the Greendale section of Worcester.
  • An Olive Garden restaurant and 30,000 square feet of retail shops.

When state officials decided in the 1990s to upgrade Route 146 and widen the connection between Worcester, Providence and all of the major highways in between, the promised impacts were huge.

The 11-town Blackstone Valley, still reeling in some ways from the loss of many traditional manufacturing companies over the decades, would start to experience the economic boom like those already seen in the MetroWest region along Interstate 495 and the Route 128 corridor.

John Mullin, director of the Center for Economic Development and dean of the landscape architecture and regional planning graduate school at UMass Amherst, described the potential this way in 2000: "No longer isolated, the Blackstone Valley is taking on characteristics of a third semicircle around metropolitan Boston."

As the nearly decade-long Route 146 project got underway, certain impacts were immediate: Residential building permits spiked into the 800s in 1998, a 31-percent increase compared to a Central Massachusetts average of 14 percent that year, according to the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC). And median home prices jumped 28 percent in 2000 — compared to 11 percent for all of Worcester County — and grew steadily through 2006, according to data from The Warren Group.

Despite the recession that hit in 2008, the Blackstone Valley continues to see some of Route 146's promises fulfilled. And prospects are looking up as the slow-but-steady economic recovery continues.

One thing the highway improvements have done is attract developers from outside the valley.

Tom Kelleher, of the Worcester-based commercial property firm Kelleher & Sadowsky, is involved in marketing the nine-year-old South Sutton Commerce Park. He sees Route 146 as next in line to boom after Route 128 and Interstate 495.

"The corridor — Worcester to Providence — is a prime piece," Kelleher said.

After the Route 146 improvement project was announced, Kelleher said investing early in the valley was "the thing to do."

Other developers apparently thought the same.

From Millbury To Uxbridge

A brief list of some of the major developments that came to the valley as the highway work was unfolding includes The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley, the largest open-air shopping center in Central Massachusetts, and the 750,000-square-foot development brought in $1.4 million in property taxes for the town of Millbury last year, more than 7 percent of its total tax levy, according to the town's assessor.

The developers of South Sutton Commerce Park built their first building in 2004 — a 250,000-square-foot distribution and office building for Carquest. They received local approvals for Home Depot to build in the park, but the big-box retailer pulled out after citizen complaints and a lawsuit.

In Uxbridge, BJ's Wholesale Club opened a 618,000-square-foot distribution center in 2006, employing 240. A year later in Northbridge, a nearly 200,000-square-foot Walmart supercenter opened.

Housing followed, with condominium projects in Millbury and upscale villas at the Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton.

Then Came The Recession

The biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression put much of the valley's economy on hold. The housing market slowed to a crawl and sale prices plummeted. Fewer companies sought out new locations to expand.

James Coull, the Maynard-based developer of South Sutton Commerce Park, recalls what it was like.

"We had very strong sales until 2007, and then everything absolutely froze," Coull said.

It took its toll. Coull said it was a painful few years and he admits the experience burned him out on the idea of pursuing other projects. He still holds some bitterness over losing Home Depot.

But that economic freeze has begun to thaw. Coull said he's in talks with other potential tenants for the South Sutton park.

"Now we've had some very serious interest," he said. "We're fortunate that we have a piece of property, one of the few in Massachusetts, with all the permits in place that you need to get started if you're a large user."

Add to that the fact that the land has virtually no ledge – a common hurdle in the valley – and it has all utilities except natural gas, which Coull hopes to get with a little help from state funding.

"That's all you really need to absolutely blow it wide open," he said.

Coull is bullish on the commerce park, but he also holds out hope for the valley in general.

"This corridor is going to become dynamic in terms of growth in manufacturing and distribution companies," he said. "When you really look around Worcester County, you see how very few well-located sites there are. It's amazing."

Jeannie Hebert, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, said infrastructure is one of the most important goals moving forward.

"Infrastructure definitely has an impact," she said. 'When there's no infrastructure, it turns companies away."

She said a number of major operations in the valley are run with propane, a more expensive alternative to natural gas, which is yet unavailable at many sites.

Infrastructure limitations aside, developers and companies are making moves in the wake of the recession. For instance:

• In Douglas, a formerly vacant mill building is getting new life as Classic Envelope moves its manufacturing operations from Whitinsville. The company is working with Douglas and several surrounding towns to bring infrastructure to its new home on Gilboa Road. And the towns want to build an access road nearby that will open up several hundred acres for development.

• In Sutton, it's tough to miss the 225,000-square-foot Atlas Box & Crating headquarters. The company built it in 2009 and moved its entire operation from a smaller facility in Sutton.

• Housing projects have continued as well. EA Fish Development converted the underutilized Linwood Mill in Northbridge into 75 apartments for residents age 55 and up.

The Next Phase

With further improvements slated for a Sutton stretch of Route 146, another developer is looking to capitalize.

Michael C. O'Brien of Auburn-based Galaxy Development purchased a 40-acre piece of land in June for $3.7 million, and plans to apply for local permits to build a supermarket-anchored shopping plaza. The very same land was once slated for a 155,000-square-foot Lowe's, but the developer filed for bankruptcy, Millbury Federal Credit Union took the property at auction, and the project was scuttled.

O'Brien, who is redeveloping the former Cranston Print Works in Webster with a plaza anchored by a Price Chopper supermarket, said future plans for Route 146 were as important in his decision to pursue the project as were past improvements.

The state has announced a $6-million improvement project that will add through and turn lanes in either direction, plus a new traffic signal, and widen the shoulders at the intersection of Route 146 and Boston Road — which has the only traffic signal on the Massachusetts side of the highway. It also happens to be right where O'Brien's new property is located.

"We feel that the timing is right for buying the property and taking advantage of those highway improvements," O'Brien said. "It's a very extensive project."

Route 146 crosses a number of towns, and they have arguably all benefited in some way from the corridor's enhancements.

But a road doesn't magically make a region flourish on its own. To upgrade the infrastructure, the region's leaders will need a plan.

Regional Agency's Help

That's where the CMRPC comes in. The agency is working with planners and other community members in the valley to develop a comprehensive compact, similar to one released for MetroWest earlier this year.

State economic development officials, wary of limited financial resources, are putting a high priority on the plans. They will filter all local infrastructure funding requests through the priorities identified in each community, state housing and economic development chief Gregory Bialecki said in an interview earlier this year.

Hebert, the chamber director, thinks the planning process is the region's best bet to succeed in landing state funding.

"It'll get us in line with the state when any projects come along," she said. "It'll be great to have at our fingertips."

Vera Kolias, a principal planner at CMRPC, said many regions lack infrastructure in certain places; she doesn't think the Blackstone Valley is any further behind other parts of Central Massachusetts.

But that doesn't mean utility lines, water and sewer aren't needed to spur development.

"Nine out of 10 companies may not want to deal with onsite wastewater treatment plants," Kolias said. "It's a $1-million initial investment."

Despite some of the hurdles it faces, Kolias said the valley has come a long way in just a decade.

"From a transportation perspective, definitely 146 has undergone some terrific upgrades and is well on its way," she said. "These communities are coming together and figuring out what they need to do to make these areas development-ready."

Paula Brouillette, who sits on the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission (the panel named after the late Rhode Island senator and made up of officials in both states), is working on the planning process with the CMRPC.

A former Douglas selectwoman, Brouillette has been in the valley since 1973 and worked on previous multi-town collaborations in the area. She thinks locals officials have done a good job planning, but admits progress has been slow.

"Obviously the economy hasn't helped," Brouillette said. "As far as execution goes, I would say we still have not proceeded."

But she's hopeful the economy will recover further and the valley will continue the boom it started 12 years ago.

"When you have a plan, the pieces can fall into place," she said. "I think we're right on the edge of it." n

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