When Becker College closes its doors in just a few months, the town of Leicester is going to lose its biggest employer and its most famous landmark. The College is located in the center of the city: The town common is the campus, and the campus is the town common.
For nearby businesses, the loss poses an immediate concern.
With its announcement last week, Becker joins a list of 20 other Massachusetts schools that shut down within the past five years, eight of which were mergers or acquisitions, according to the Department of Higher Education.
“Unfortunately, Becker’s impending closure is devastating to the community,” Leicester Town Administrator David Generoux said. “We have a number of small businesses that do cater to the Becker faculty and students.”
Becker College, which dates back to 1784, is home to about 1,700 students and 300 employees. Its Leicester campus of red and white brick buildings stretches 44 acres and includes six dormitories, where most students stay even with the additional Worcester campus a few miles down the road. The football field adjacent to the campus was renovated in 2008, and new turf was installed just two years ago.
Generoux said that there are businesses in the area that have made a good living thanks to the student population.
“Having that population leave the town is definitely devastating to them,” Generoux said. “We’re concerned that it’s going to be problematic for them to continue on without having that group to sell items to. We definitely have concerns.”
Before the pandemic, when classes were in session, stores just a few hundred feet from campus like Carmen’s Shears and Clippers, saw a lot of student traffic, especially from the college’s sports teams.
“They don’t know the area that well and they don’t have cars,” said Carmen Clark, the salon’s owner. “So they come here to get their haircuts and whatever they need done for grooming.”
“It does affect the majority of the people around here, like Cumberland Farms, the diner, the restaurants down the street, because it’s just around this area,” Clark said. “I just did a haircut with a gentleman who was from Louisiana … He didn’t want to go down to Worcester because he doesn’t know the area.”
The pandemic has made trouble for a lot of the businesses in town, and now the loss of Becker adds to the damage.
“I think the whole corona ended the Becker kids coming here, most of them anyway,” said Melissa Liljegren, a waitress at Farmhouse Diner, which is next to Clark’s salon. “I do have a small little following of the Becker football team and a couple people. I am going to miss my Becker girls that come in here for our stuffed cheesecake French toast.”
Liljegren now predicts that the diner’s coming year will be no better than business during the pandemic.
“A lot of people haven’t been coming out like usual,” she said.
Generoux added that Becker leaving might affect overall property value within the town.
“I think in the short term, everything will be affected in town,” Generoux said. “The businesses will feel it. There will be vacant housing in town.”
Generoux is hoping the campus can economically serve the needs of the community in another way, however it is transformed.
“Becker has maintained a very beautiful and historic campus,” Generoux said. “We are hopeful that in the end that property will be redeveloped into something else that will also be able to serve the needs of the business in the community...Hopefully in the coming months, we’ll have more information and we’ll have an idea of what is going to be done going forward.”
Clark University and Worcester Polytech Institute have said they will take in Becker students, and Clark University says it plans to use some of Becker’s facilities to continue the school’s highly-regarded digital game design program. But that would be housed on the Worcester campus, not in Leicester.
Monica Sager is an intern in the GBH News Worcester Bureau