Education is Adding Dividends to Downtown

Craig Blais gives a tour of the old Telegram & Gazette building at 20 Franklin St., Worcester, across from City Hall, which is being renovated for use by Quinsigamond Community College students Sept. 2.

WORCESTER – Quinsigamond Community College expects about 500 students to occupy the former Telegram & Gazette building when the semester begins Sept. 2.

When 1,500 additional QCC students taking noncredit classes and programs in a new Healthcare and Workforce Development Training Center are added into the mix, that equals a lot of foot traffic — and officials hope — a boost to surrounding businesses and to the vitality of downtown.

Craig L. Blais, president and chief executive officer of the Worcester Business Development Corporation, which owns the space at 20 Franklin St. totaling 135,000 square feet, said QCC’s expansion into the downtown from its West Boylston Street campus is a win-win scenario. A “robust, thriving” city center can be a key selling point for universities and colleges recruiting students, he said, noting that students will use the area six days a week, potentially until 11 p.m.

“Activity beyond 5 p.m. will add to the continued success of downtown,” Mr. Blais said. “I’m excited about the move and the abundance of opportunities it will provide.”

The QCC students who will attend classes in the renovated former newspaper building have enrolled in health programs, which are expected to occupy about 75,000 square feet on three floors.

The property will also be home to a 6,500-square-foot technology incubator on the fourth floor, anchored by ten24 Digital Solutions, a Northboro firm. Mr. Blais said that section will be open by October. The incubator will actively work with college students from QCC and high school students from Worcester Technical High School.

The plan, he says, is to tap the talents of young entrepreneurs by having them start companies “with a nonprofit landlord,” WBDC, with the ultimate goal of these businesses one day locating in the city with WBDC’s help.

In an earlier interview, QCC President Gail Carberry said the health program’s move from the West Boylston campus is a “critical piece” in the college’s effort to serve students and the community more effectively in its major field of health care.

“QCC will become part of city living and bring more action downtown,” said Lillian Ortiz, QCC’s vice president for strategic enrollment management and student engagement. “Our presence is expected to go a long way in supporting local businesses and fulfilling our commitment to partner with the city.”

Ms. Ortiz said the location will feature a privately owned healthy food café that is bound to attract students and other customers as well. Greater access to area hospitals and businesses is another plus that will make the partnership “more seamless,” she said.

QCC is following the path to downtown Worcester forged 14 years ago by the Mass. College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University, when the Boston graduate school established a campus on Foster Street in Worcester. Since then, MCPHS has invested more than $350 million in vacant and underused properties, renovating and transforming them into educational and housing facilities for students. Among these projects was the $10 million Crowne Plaza Hotel revamp into dormitory for pharmacy students.

MCPHS President Charles F. Monahan Jr. said that within two years, he expects 2,000 students enrolled in nine programs will be using the school’s 17 buildings in Worcester.

PictureIn the center of the photo is the MCPHS dorm, formerly the Crowne Plaza Hotel, in Lincoln Square. (T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON)

He emphasized that MCPHS is erroneously regarded by some as “an economic development company.”

First and foremost, it’s an institution of higher education and a nonprofit as well.

“We see Worcester as the perfect place to expand our Boston campus, Mr. Monahan said. “We located in Worcester because it is very rich in clinical sites — St. Vincent Hospital, UMass Memorial Health Care, Reliant Medical Group — offering opportunities for students.”

The student population has an average age of 28, hails from 44 states and 40 countries, and most rent apartments near the campus or in Worcester County. MCPHS has housing to accommodate 450, Mr. Monahan said.

Last year, MCPHS bought 3.5 acres next to Lincoln Square from Morgan Construction Co., which had two buildings with 90,000 square feet of space. The property may be used for housing or something else. Mr. Monahan said that site will be developed “only when we’re ready to put something into it,” and not before.

Becker College made a dent in its need for housing by leasing space for 75 students at 76 Franklin St., at a building now called Bancroft Hall. David Ellis, Becker’s chief financial officer, said the agreement at Bancroft lasts four more years and will be monitored annually. The college, with campuses in Leicester and in the Elm Park section of Worcester, has no further plans to expand in downtown Worcester, he said.

Mr. Ellis said Becker enjoys a good relationship with the city primarily because its priorities of safety and security are being met. He said education appears to be a key piece of Worcester’s economy along with the legal, banking and insurance professions.

“I have 38 years’ higher ed experience at five campuses, and you need to be a partner where you are located. I will say that Worcester and Leicester both ‘get it.’ They appreciate what we provide for them and vice versa,” Mr. Ellis said.

But as much as colleges and universities may play a role in a desired turnaround downtown, Mr. Monahan said, they cannot reinvent downtown Worcester by themselves.

“Colleges alone can’t revitalize the city. Others will have to step up,” he said. “We’re not in the redevelopment business. We’re in the business of education.”

City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said Worcester has 35,000 college students, but up until a few years ago, no one would have known it. There’s definitely an effort underway to “bring energy and money” into creating more of a college town atmosphere, he said.

In addition to the QCC campus and technology incubator, the Franklin Street site will be home to an art gallery and a 300-seat lecture hall that will transform in the evenings into Black Box Theatre, pending cultural grants, Mr. Blais said.

The Franklin Street project totaling $40 million is funded through new market and historic tax credits, private equity, a $13.7 million bank loan from six institutions led by Fidelity Bank, federal Housing and Urban Development money and loans, and brownfields money from the city and state. Mr. Blais said the project dovetails nicely with the CitySquare project, a huge downtown renewal project that is home to the Unum Group, with plans for more, including a parking garage and hotel.

Worcester State University is among the higher education institutions contemplating a presence downtown. Spokeswoman Renae Lias Claffey said WSU is having “exploratory conversations and listening to ideas,” about the possibility of expansion.

“We’re looking at opportunities, but we need to be able to say to faculty, students and trustees — this is how it will work for us,” and be sustainable and provide long-term benefits, she said.