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Sentinel and Enterprise, by Marisa Donelan

Developer Gets Low-Interest Loan for Renovation

August 11, 2010

LEOMINSTER – A low-interest, $1 million loan from MassDevelopment will help local developer Jim Whitney occupy nearly all of a renovated industrial building he bought in 2008, Whitney said Tuesday.

The loan, from MassDevelopment’s New Markets Loan Fund, will enable Whitney to renovate 20,000 square feet of space in the Whitney Square building at 40 Spruce St., to make way for two levels of upscale offices for Community Healthlink Inc.

Once Community Healthlink – a member of UMass Memorial Health Care that provides mental health and counseling services – is set up in the building, it will be almost fully occupied, Whitney said during a tour of the building.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “This whole neighborhood has seen a major transformation over the past few years. It’s heading back to what it was years ago, when it was a thriving part of town.”

Community Healthlink will have its own entrance to its two-floor suite of offices, which include patient rooms, administrative space, social areas and conference rooms. It will also have access to a renovated, shared outdoor area behind the building, which has transformed from an overgrown and cracked driveway to an urban garden with a view of Monoosnoc Brook.

Whitney said the design of the new medical space will give patients privacy and security.

Community Healthlink previously tried to purchase the former National Plastics Center & Museum on Lancaster Street, but the city of Leominster exercised its right of first refusal to buy the plastics center.

In a press release, MassDevelopment officials said the move will bring 40, permanent, full-time health care jobs to downtown Leominster with Community Healthlink, part of a transition “from an old industrial area to a vibrant, commercial district,” MassDevelopment President and CEO Robert L. Culver said.

Whitney said most of his building is now occupied by businesses related directly or indirectly to health and medical services – there is a personal training gym, an employment screening company and a manufacturer of parts used in MRI scanners, among others.

“When I bought this building I had really hoped it would be an extension of the other health services that are down the road at Searstown,” he said.

There is still a vacant unit on the first floor of Whitney Square, facing Spruce Street, which has access to its own parking lot. Whitney is hoping it will be converted into a restaurant in the future.

Since buying the building, Whitney’s workers have sandblasted their way through years of paint and partitions, uncovering red brick walls throughout the building, along with wooden beams and ceilings. The “old mill” aesthetic has become hugely popular for office space, and though it takes work up-front to renovate, many of the older manufacturing buildings have good bones to make them useful in the future.

Other property owners in the area have also done significant improvement work, and Whitney said he’s noticed a decrease in vandalism and other criminal activity. The investment in old mills and manufacturing spaces isn’t just good for business, he said, it can improve quality of life in neighborhoods when enough property owners come on board.

“Buildings aren’t made like this anymore, you can’t find these details without spending a ton of money in a new building,” Whitney said. “This is solid work. It’s been the most fun project I’ve ever done. There was just so much potential in here.”

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