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January 23, 2017

Greater Boston companies want Central Mass. cultural benefits

PHOTO/BRAD KANE Joe Cox, president and CEO of the EcoTarium, has seen an increase in Boston-area companies looking for corporate memberships, as more of their employees are located in Central Mass.

Boosters of Worcester have long highlighted the quality of the city's cultural attractions, but it seems there is now palpable excitement from a new wave of young families calling Worcester County home.

So says Joe Cox, president and CEO of the EcoTarium, a Worcester science and nature museum with indoor and outdoor attractions that Cox said had seen a 16-percent increase in attendance over the previous year.

A mild winter and a warm summer helped, as did a strong set of exhibits and programs, but Cox thinks the uptick has deeper roots. Increased interest from Metrowest-area companies wanting to offer corporate membership benefits to their employees is an important signal that the population is migrating westward, and that creates new opportunity for the museum and other Worcester attractions.

Historically, large corporate employers have offered company memberships to places like the New England Aquarium or of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In the last year, major employers like Mathworks in Natick and TJX Cos. in Framingham have begun offering Ecotarium corporate membership benefits as well.

Meanwhile, overall growth in corporate memberships has been remarkable. In 2014, about 3,500 employees had access to the EcoTarium through their companies. In December, corporate members represented 10,850 employees, which Cox called huge growth.

“Maybe employees start out working in Boston, and then as they're settling, having a family, moving further west, settling in the Worcester area, [they] are looking for local things to do,” said Cox.

Population projections

Projected changes in the Worcester County population add weight to Cox's comments. According to Sujatha Mohanakrishnan, transportation project manager for the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission, professionals with young families are attracted by the value offered by Central Massachusetts communities, with housing prices as the main driver.

Towns like Northborough, Shrewsbury and Grafton, which are still more affordable than MetroWest communities closer to Boston, are now becoming saturated and people are looking even further west.

“Why not live in Charlton or Dudley? Why do you have to pay $200,000 more for a house in Westborough, Northborough or Shrewsbury?” Mohanakrishnan said.

Growth is expected to be particularly strong in the towns southwest and southeast of Worcester, which have access to major highways like Route 146 and the Mass Pike, and are commutable to MetroWest, Worcester, Providence and Boston. Farther-flung areas northwest of Worcester will probably grow more slowly, Mohanakrishnan said.

Just as employees are being lured westward to live, MetroWest companies may recruit more people from the Central Massachusetts area to work for them, which also has the potential for boosting Worcester-area attractions.

An expansion of talent

“Typically, those relationships [with cultural attractions] start because we have a number of staff who are vested or have a relationship with institutions,” said Kevin Lorenc, head of corporate communications of Mathworks, which has implemented steady expansion of its Route 9 headquarters in Natick.

“Our talent pool has just expanded,” said Lorenc, noting people who live in Worcester are reverse commuting, along with those in suburban towns like Shrewsbury and Grafton. Increasingly, Mathworks is recruiting graduates of Worcester Polytechnic Institute as well as students from Boston schools.

A WPI recruit has been one of the company's biggest advocates for a relationship with the EcoTarium, Lorence said. In addition to signing on as a corporate member this year, Mathworks employees have worked on developing exhibits for the museum, including one called City Science that opened this month. The company has participated in grant funding in the last four years.

Worcester renaissance

More attention for Worcester attractions isn't just a function of the shifting population, said Adam Rozan, director of audience engagement at the Worcester Art Museum.

Rozen said museum attendance data show more MetroWest area residents are visiting, and that's a function of what he said is Worcester's renaissance, which includes ongoing downtown residential and hotel projects and an expanding Theatre District.

“When I look at the data … as you move towards Boston, it's getting stronger,” Rozan said. “There is that sense that you can come to Worcester and have a great day.”

Cox – who, like Rozan, relocated to Worcester in the last five years – said the interest in the area's cultural attractions is more than just a function of people living here.

“There's all of this excitement in Worcester, which I think is just bubbling up and we're feeling it in the cultural organizations, in the great restaurants, in the great events,” Cox said.

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