Arts, culture? Fitchburg's well on the way
October 24, 2018 : Sentinel & Enterprise, by Amanda Burke
FITCHBURG - City officials pounded pavement Tuesday morning on a walking tour of the newly designated "Fitchburg Arts and Cultural District," which for the next three years will benefit from a program aimed at spurring development in Gateway Cities.
The program, called the Transformative Development Initiative, is run by MassDevelopment, the state's quasi-public agency that works to stimulate economic growth in the state.
"It's like a business accelerator, but for places," said Noah Koretz, MassDevelopment's director of Transformative Development.
MassDevelopment last spring chose Fitchburg, Chelsea, Lawrence and Worcester to participate in the initiative.
It's a three-year program that will give Fitchburg opportunities for technical assistance, direct capital investment and grants to develop a particular area in the city.
Over the duration of the program, the initiative's partner organizations -- the city of Fitchburg, Fitchburg State University, NewVue Communities, the Montachusett Opportunity Council, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and Elite Construction -- will focus on developing real estate and the arts within the "Fitchburg Arts and Culture District," said Koretz.
The district is shaped like a circle. Its midpoint is near City Offices at 166 Boulder Drive and expands outward to the edge of Crocker Field, Lowe Playground, Prichard Street and Laurel Hill Cemetery.
As part of the program, MassDevelopment hired economic development professional Francisco Torres for three years.
Torres, who has offices in the Fitchburg Theater Block, started in the job in September. His sole job it to move the district closer to becoming a destination for arts and culture, and connect current or potential business owners with opportunities to begin or flourish.
Officials pointed out a number of development projects already underway in the "Fitchburg Arts and Cultural District."
Jay Bry, vice president of finance and administration at Fitchburg State University, said the Theater Block isn't open to the public yet. But meetings are already being held on the second floor, home to the ideaLab.
Students will being taking classes on the second floor in the spring, he said, though renovation of the theater itself will be completed later.
The Theater Block will link downtown with the university, furthering the goal of making the about 1-mile stretch from FSU and Main Street the "most walkable and bikeable" area in the city, Economic Development Director Tom Skwierawski said.
Elite Construction, led by Matthew Fournier, will turn 409 Main St. into apartments and a restaurant at street level.
Up the street, old City Hall will be renovated and restored to municipal headquarters, freeing up the old General Electric building at 166 Boulder Drive, he said. The old Bank of America building next door, which is owned by the city, will also be municipal space.
Private developer Rick Boscardin has pulled building permits to turn the old Fitchburg Gas and Electric building into condos, according to Skwierawski.
On the final leg of the walking tour, officials stopped at the Fitchburg Art Museum. Across the street, construction was underway on the Fitchburg Arts Community, which is taking shape inside the old B.F. Brown school.
Once completed, the mixed-income community will house 70-80 tenants who each work in the field of the arts, as well as studio space.
According to the project's contractor, Fournier, the fire damage inside the building has been cleaned up, and a new roof will be put on in time for winter's snow.
Museum's Executive Director Nick Capasso said the Fitchburg Arts Community will attract arts entrepreneurs. Once completed, it and the FAM across the street will create something of a campus for the arts visually linked by outdoor art and sculptures.
Marc Dohan, executive director of NewVue Communities, which bought the long-vacant property this summer, said the artists colony will move the city closer to achieving its goal of becoming the destination for arts and culture in North Central Massachusetts.
"We have a promise to really create a hub for arts and culture that we've talked about for a long time," he said.
Koretz said developers thinking about buying or rehabbing a building in the "Fitchburg Arts and Cultural District" should reach out to Torres for guidance. (Torres can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"What this isn't is MassDevelopment coming in and saying, here's what you need to do,"Koretz told city officials. "What this is is MassDevelopment coming in as a partnership and saying, what do you want to do and how can we help connect you with resources to make it happen."