Worcester officials held a groundbreaking with great fanfare this summer for the city's new Polar Park, the future home of the Red Sox triple-A affiliate. Nabbing the "WooSox," as the team is unofficially called, from Pawtucket was considered a major boost for the up-and-coming city.
The $100 million, 10,000-seat ballpark is just one part of an ambitious downtown renovation project that will include 250 apartments, two hotels, an office building and 65,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. It’s a fantastic vision for the city. But some are warning local officials to be careful what they wish for.
"Anybody with a brain, anybody who's been to any city where development has gone into overdrive, needs to stop and look and realize all of that comes with a cost," said Victor Infante, the entertainment editor for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. As Infante put it, Worcester is an amazing city with amazing people doing amazing things. But he's worried that unchecked development could ruin what makes the place amazing.
"The city developing is like the weather, it's gonna happen," he said. "I just think we should question how we go about it. Because at the end of the day, I'd like people to come to Worcester and become Worcester, not people come to Worcester and Worcester become generic."
He pointed to places that he says became less unique as they developed, like Greenwich Village in New York City, Portland, Ore., Orange County, Calif., and Denver, Colo.
This is a development story that Daniel Landes has experienced first-hand. He created a popular vegan restaurant in Denver two decades ago and became something of a local celebrity.
"Denver sort of sold out its uniqueness very quickly to accommodate mediocrity," Landes said. "And that's where homogenization starts, is that you don't recognize and realize your own cultural relevance and then you're willing to sell it out for development."
Landes said what drew people to Denver in the 1980s and 90s was the culture — the artists and restaurant owners living and working in what was then a down-and-out city. But as Denver attracted more people and more money, Landes said all of the new buildings started to look the same — restaurant chains moved in, and the artists, musicians and restaurateurs who gave the city its unique flavor were pushed out.
Some long-time Worcester residents, like Michelle May, said their city is doing a good job of avoiding that so far. May is an artist and co-founder of Atelier ID Global, a branding company in Worcester. She said the city has lots of great arts spots, and support from city officials.
"I see the art scene as growing, growing and growing," she said. And city officials "go to events, I see them there, I talk to them there, they ask me questions when they come. They care about these artists, they care about their ability to make money, they care about these spots and about people finding out about them."
City Manager Ed Augustus said he and others in Worcester are working hard to keep artists of all types in the city. He pointed to spaces downtown and factory buildings being rehabbed for art and performance spaces, cafes, loads of new local restaurants and a custom motorcycle shop renowned in the area.
Augustus empathized with people in places like Denver who feel like they’ve “lost their city” to outside interests. But for a city to grow and prosper, there has to be a balance.
"You do need some new [outside] money in communities. If Worcester could've just done it by itself, we would've done it 20 years ago," he said. "There needed to be an influx of new capital and new investors and developers in the city to kind of get the thing moving."
As the new ballpark rises, along with prices and rents, Augustus said he and other officials — and residents themselves — need to remain vigilant about maintaining the right balance of outside money and local interests.
Infante is one resident who will keep tabs on his city's government.
"I trust the city manager's intentions, and I trust that he believes what he says," Infante said. "But looking around I'm concerned. The history of development everywhere is that people move in with the best of intentions then sell out."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Victor Infante's role at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. He is the entertainment editor.