When Karim El-Gamal, 36, and his business partner first wandered into Hudson in 2011, his opinion of the town was mixed.
“Hudson, when we came across it, it was a beautiful little town,” he remembered. “It had nice brick buildings, had nice walkable streets and the people were great.” But, he said, “6 p.m. would roll around and there wasn’t a car in sight. It was dead; by 8 p.m., it was a ghost town.”
Ironically, El-Gamal said those negatives were just what he and his partner, a classmate at Babson College, needed to begin building their dream of creating a low-key pizza-style restaurant, The Rail Trail Flatbread Company.
“We looked around and thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute, there’s a lot of roadways going through here. It’s connected. There’s a lot of cars driving through, a lot of the towns around here don’t have a downtown center.’ So we were like, ‘Well, I guess this is where we’re going to risk it all,’” he said.
In the five years since opening, the town and El-Gamal have grown together. He’s opened a homemade ice cream shop and a bar across the street from his restaurant. A new gourmet cheese shop opened a few doors down, along with a couple upscale clothing boutiques, a microbrewery and a martini bar.
The boutiques and brewery and martini bar may seem odd to those who know Hudson as a blue-collar, formerly down-and-out mill town of 20,000 people. But while officials and businesses in and around Boston await a decision by Amazon about where it will open its new headquarters, this area 30 miles west of the city along Interstate 495, called MetroWest, has been quietly booming.
“Back in 1980, the annual payroll in our region was approximately $2.1 billion. The last time we had full year numbers, in 2015, we’re at $23 billion,” said Paul Matthews, Director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership.
The partnership defines the 495/MetroWest region as a swath of 33 communities at the confluence of I-495 and the Massachusetts Turnpike, from Shrewsbury in the west to Natick in the east, and from the Nashoba Valley in the north to the Blackstone Valley in the south. An economic report released by the group said that one in every 12 jobs in Massachusetts is in this area. Matthews said the growth has been driven largely by high tech companies — starting with EMC — now Dell EMC — setting up shop in Hopkinton in the 1980s.
“We now have Cisco," Matthews said, "with their third-largest facility in North America in our region. IBM located their largest software lab in North America in Littleton. You have Sunovion, which is a life sciences company, now headquartered in Marlborough and part of a Japanese conglomerate. You have Sanofi Genzyme, which everyone thinks of Cambridge as the headquarters, which is true, but there’s far more employees in Framingham than in Cambridge, and they have facilities in Westborough and Northborough.”
Matthews sat at a Starbucks in a brand-new plaza in Shrewsbury, just outside Worcester. His colleague, 495/MetroWest Partnership Deputy Director Jessica Strunkin, joined him. Strunkin said the Starbucks, the Whole Foods plaza next door, and the fancy apartments above the retail shops are yet more examples of what has become something of a mantra here: “what benefits each of us, benefits all of us.”
“With the growth of the companies out here, their employees need places to go for dry cleaning, for lunch, for coffee," Strunkin said. "So we’ve heard from the companies themselves that they’re looking for these amenities in suburban locations.”
The Massachusetts economy has improved statewide since the 1980s. But Michael Goodman, Executive Director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said this region has grown more than any other except Boston because of many organizations like the 495/MetroWest Partnership.
“This is not the only area with a regional organization or organizations,” Goodman said. “But [MetroWest's] is really successful in part because it’s private-sector lead. So they can all find common cause around common problems.”
But, there is a dark side to the “MetroWest miracle." While the cities and towns collaborate for business, when it comes to housing, it’s everyone for themselves. And so most of the new housing being built — and a good bit of the existing housing stock — is out of reach for low income and even middle class workers.
Family Promise MetroWest is a homeless shelter and transitional living program. Executive Director Sue Crossley said she knows the problem well. The region, she said, is experiencing the same thing as Boston — incredible demand jacking up rents and housing prices and pushing families farther west.
“We’re not talking about the destitute anymore,” Crossley said. “We’re talking about people who are hardworking, you know, they just can’t afford to live in this area, people making minimum wage, single moms. We’re even seeing students.”
Crossley’s group is building a new duplex intended for low-income tenants on a plot in Natick backing up to Route 9. The work is being done for free by students from Keefe Technical High School. Family Promise raised the money for materials.
“The new, upscale housing is nice for the big companies, but it drives up the cost for the little guys and the residents who’ve lived in a place for a while,” Crossley said. “But how do you keep the people who have always been here and keep it affordable?”
And this could be the MetroWest Achilles heel, says UMass Dartmouth professor Michael Goodman.
“There has to be better roads, better transit options, better ways to use water, more facilities," he said. "If the region doesn’t address the growing shortcomings in infrastructure and housing , the MetroWest miracle could go bust."