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By Steven H. Foskett Jr.
Photo: Ashley Green
WORCESTER — Worcester and Cleveland are “kindred spirit” cities in which the challenges of post-industrial urban America have started to give way as revitalization efforts bear fruit, Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc., told the 54th annual meeting of the Worcester Business Development Corp. Thursday night at Mercantile Center.
University Circle Inc. is a nonprofit community service corporation responsible for the development, service and advocacy of the downtown Cleveland neighborhood that includes anchors such as the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Museum of Art. It has leveraged those anchors to attract mixed-use development, and Mr. Ronayne praised Worcester’s progress using a similar approach downtown.
Thursday night was the debut of a team of ambassadors attached to Worcester’s newly created Business Improvement District that uses self-imposed fees from businesses within the district to fund improvements and programming, WBDC President and CEO Craig Blais said.
Mr. Ronayne said University Circle uses a similar structure under Ohio state law that allows district taxation to be used for everything from special police patrols to ambassadors to improved lighting and special events.
He said Worcester and Cleveland are both located in large metropolitan “mega regions” across the country where economies are more often relying on “Eds and Meds” development to drive growth and export ideas. But he said it’s important that the reinvigoration of urban centers pay attention to details. He talked about making sure University Circle’s rebirth included pedestrian and cycling-friendly streets, transit options and affordable and workforce-style housing right at the center of the action. He said focusing on the “power of place” makes these areas destinations for living as well as working.
“You can’t do anything if you can’t keep it clean and safe,” Mr. Ronayne said.
Also at the WBDC meeting Thursday, Charles F. “Chip” Norton Jr., owner and principal of Franklin Realty Advisors, received the 2019 Robert S. Bowditch Economic Development Award, given for significant contributions to the economic vitality of Worcester.
Mr. Norton is the largest private developer in Worcester County; he bought the former Worcester Galleria Mall in 2015 and transformed it into Mercantile Center, which includes two office towers at 100 and 120 Front St., a 1,647-space parking garage and retail space at 90 and 110 Front St. In 2006, he purchased the 1.2 million square-foot mixed-used business park consisting of the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center and 12 buildings for commercial use.
Mr. Norton said development of CitySquare downtown has been a phenomenal example of public-private partnership; he said he has always tried to make his tenants proud of their spaces and to give them good value, while giving back to the community.
“This is a great honor, quite frankly,” Mr. Norton said.