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May 12, 2020

Fitchburg development projects continuing, business aid expanding amid pandemic

Photo | Grant Welker Main Street in downtown Fitchburg

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t stopping two major Fitchburg developments from moving forward, while the city administration and others are working to expand aid programs for small businesses.

In downtown, redevelopment of the Theatre Block building is moving ahead, with plans for a remade performing arts space in a facility Fitchburg State University bought in 2016. The university established entrepreneurial space there and plans to have its theater program there, along with newly occupied storefronts on a stretch of Main Street struggling with high vacancy rates.

Bids have now gone out for construction design work, Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said Tuesday in an online chat with the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce.

“That entire area — I know the word is overused — is going to be transformed, and we’re excited about that,” DiNatale said.

West of downtown, work is continuing on the Game On Sports & Performance Center off Westminster Hill Road, where four indoor sports fields and nine outdoor lighted fields are expected to draw athletic events from across the region.

DiNatale is hopeful Fitchburg — whose 40,000-odd population rose 1% from 2010 to 2019 — can take advantage of residents who may be looking to leave Boston and other larger urban areas out of fear of the pandemic. A Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 adults in April found 39% of urban dwellers to be considering moving to a less crowded place.

“That positions our city well to capitalize well on those trends,” the mayor said.

In the meantime, Fitchburg officials, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and others are working to help small businesses make it through the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

A small business grant program the city established gave $2,500 grants to 40 local businesses, and a second round of funding is slated for later this month, said Tom Skwierawski, the city’s executive director of community development.

Similar aid has been given by the chamber of commerce and the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority. Funding should exceed $500,000 between each of those programs and another planned as part of Fitchburg’s state-affiliated Transformative Development Initiative program, which targets downtown redevelopment.

The city’s website has also created a page highlighting restaurants remaining open for takeout and delivery orders.

“I know I’ve frequented the places. Probably too many, DiNatale joked.

Fitchburg officials also highlighted city companies helping out in different ways to fight the outbreak.

Revolutionary Clinics and Garden Remedies, two cannabis producers, have switched to making hand sanitizer. J&R Glass has manufactured plexiglass for retailers, and Strong Style Coffee, a downtown cafe, has kept its kitchen open despite closing to customers so a mobile fresh food program can use it. Great Wolf Lodge has donated up to 10,000 room nights for medical professionals.

“That was really just a great thing to see,” said Mary Jo Bohart, the city’s economic development director.

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