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Joshua Cormier was born and raised in Gardner. From his time as a young boy in the 1980s on thriving downtown streets that were still supported by furniture manufacturers to his time as a city councilor and now as the city's economic development officer, Cormier has witnessed a transformation in Gardner.
Like many communities, Gardner was once a thriving manufacturing city that struggled after losing much of that old manufacturing base. Today, the city's economic base includes a mix of small businesses and manufacturers that create such products as medical equipment, electronic cable and materials used in medical research. In the next five years, Gardner-based companies are expected to add 150 manufacturing jobs.
Gardner's transformation has included a recently completed, 12,500-square-foot expansion of New England Peptide and a 51,000-square-foot expansion that's underway at Advanced Cable Ties (ACT), which makes plastic cable ties.
But Cormier and others believe that what worked for Gardner in decades past, as the “Furniture Capital of the World” and “Chair City,” also works today: the local base of former factory workers.
When Precision Optics began hiring after its founding in 1982, there was a strong base of people with transferrable skills who could work on the extremely small optics that are sometimes only twice the size of a human hair, said President Joseph Forkey.
“There's a long-standing culture in this part of the state and this part of the country for a high level of manufacturing, and I think that goes back to the (region's) woodworking and engineering history,” Forkey said.
Don Irving, whose business, Data Guide Cable Corp., has been in the city since 1983, said many of his first hires were from the furniture industry and other manufacturing firms that were based in Gardner.
“We can train them to do anything, but if they don't have the internal desire to make things better for themselves and their families, it is not going to work,” he said.
There's also plenty of new construction space where businesses can expand. While many of the former manufacturing sites were not conducive to reuse, most have been cleared out, leaving a number of “pad ready” sites ripe for development. This has helped manufacturers such as ACT, which has been able to set aside 12 acres for future expansions while creating buildings from the ground-up to their specifications.
“If you're looking for a good balance of commerce and space, then Gardner is a really good option,” added Sam Massoni, CEO at New England Peptide. “I could have been in Boston, but I chose to come back out here because I like to fish and I like the land.”
But not everything is positive in Gardner. In fact, many of the biggest complications of doing business in the city are the mirror images of its benefits. There's a lack of adequate infrastructure. Many former manufacturing buildings were not suitable for modern needs, with cramped floor plans and wood construction. While businesses like Irving's made use of these inexpensive facilities when they launched their businesses, few of those aging structures remain.
That's also an issue for non-manufacturing businesses, according to Cormier, especially buildings that lack adequate parking space.
Gardner's remote location and rural character also carry particular downsides. While the lifestyle is one of the main benefits business owners cite, the city is not one that customers around the world equate with high-level manufacturing, Forkey said.
The city is actively working on that, with improvement projects such as a new police station on Main Street that has spurred an investment by Cumberland Farms in a 12-pump gas station nearby. Gardner doesn't need a huge explosion of development, said Mayor Mark Hawke, who is content to see steady, incremental growth from businesses already in the city.
“I think that's the way Gardner needs to grow,” he said.
One of the greatest challenges Gardner may face is its proximity to New Hampshire. With the Granite State just 12 miles up the road, the allure of a more tax-lenient state is enticing to businesses in North Central Massachusetts. That's always been on Irving's mind when he has considered expanding Data Guide Cable.
“The question is: Do I do it here in Massachusetts or move 12 miles up the road?” he said.
But a responsive local government, helped out by Gardner's size — the city's population is about 22,000 — is a plus, according to business owners.
“It's another critical factor, knowing that someone has your back and they are going to work with you to get what needs to be done, done,” Massoni said. “It gives you a sense of confidence and a little bit of community … we struggle enough to compete around the world, so you need a supportive government.”
It's not uncommon for Hawke to drop by at a business as it renovates or expands, Irving said. Being able to have more personal relationships with different pieces of the local government, including the fire and police departments, can make operations go much smoother than they would otherwise, he said. Irving, meanwhile, developed property adjacent to his business into a shopping plaza, anchored by a Price Chopper. The approval process, which officials of the supermarket chain expected to take more than a year, was completed within months, Irving said.
Hawke has actively pushed for this business engagement since he took office in 2006. Whether the city is working with a business on a tax-increment financing deal or an overlay district to allow for a new use of a plot of land, Gardner actively attempts to promote and grow business, he said.
Mount Wachusett Community College's continuing education programs are a huge help to get the workforce skills that area businesses need, said Ken Tomasetti, president of ACT. He has found it hard to find employees to make plastics, but is working with the school and the city to promote careers in manufacturing.
Gardner has the amenities of a larger city, but with the lower real estate prices befitting its more remote location, while offering a lifestyle many prefer. The more laid-back attitude with affordable housing prices at a median price of $171,242 compared to $323,800 throughout the state in 2012, according to City-Data.com, all lead to the lifestyle they suggest: a more relaxed, small-town way of living.
Despite that, the city is still connected, with a number of major roads running through and around Gardner, both shipping products and maintaining a physical tie to the eastern part of the state. Forkey, of Precision Optics, said the location is close enough to Boston to maintain a connection with the optics community to draw engineering employees northwest.
As Gardner continues its shift from a center for making furniture to a city with a more diverse business base, the city remains a community that's well-connected and can offer benefits of a bigger city, with the personal connection of a small town, Hawke said. The city's biggest selling point continues to be its small-town lifestyle and level of accessibility, he said.
“One of the biggest things is just listening to people and trying to work with them and if we can't help them, put them in touch with someone who can. That's how Gardner's size helps,” Hawke said. “We are big enough to carry a little bit of weight … but it is still that small-town feel where if they want to call me up I will work with them.”