Spotlight on Sustainability: A smart growth corridor plan in North Central Massachusetts

Hmong Focus Group
A Hmong community focus group providing input for the Wachussett Smart Growth Corridor Plan.

A new smart growth corridor plan for North Central Massachusetts will set the stage for housing growth, mixed-use development, new jobs, and tourism opportunities, thanks to the combined efforts of local authorities and community leaders.

The Wachusett Smart Growth Corridor Plan is an ambitious effort to transform the North Central Massachusetts region into a destination for visitors and a transit-accessible magnet for housing and employment growth. The Montachusett Regional Planning Commission (MRPC) is working to coordinate the process, with three nearby municipalities—Fitchburg, Leominster, and Westminster, MA—serving as partners.

In 2010, local authorities were awarded a USDOT TIGER grant to construct a new commuter rail station, served by an extension of the regional passenger rail system, which connects to Boston. In the TIGER grant, local leaders saw an opportunity to help revitalize their region after decades of economic decline. The North Central region has some of Massachusetts’s highest foreclosure and unemployment rates, and has suffered the loss of many key industries. The Smart Growth Corridor Plan primarily focuses on Fitchburg, MA, the community that has suffered the most significant loss of its manufacturing base.

The MRPC is working to ameliorate some of the harsh effects from recent economic loss. As the lead entity on the project, MRPC intends to work with the North Central Chamber of Commerce to survey local businesses and determine how to facilitate “reverse commuting”. The commission also hopes to partner with area transit agencies to help foster transit-to-job and reverse-commute connections.

The local tourism industry has showed particular enthusiasm for the project, and MRPC has worked with area businesses to incorporate their input. The owners of Great Wolf Lodge, one of the largest tourist destinations in the region, have joined the process in hopes of leveraging the opportunity to attract visitors from the Boston area, and are currently exploring ways to coordinate bus and shuttle services from the station to local attractions.

The site of the future Wachussett Station
Site of Future Wachussett Station in Fitchburg, MA

An important element of the corridor plan process involves directly engaging the local Hmong, Hispanic, and Vietnamese communities, which make up a substantial minority population in the project study area. MRPC’s projects always involve outreach to minorities; now, through the funding for this corridor plan, the commission is using translators to better connect with those groups.

The feedback gathered from those communities has often overlapped with the priorities of the area population as a whole—such as housing affordability, economic development, more sidewalks, and better transportation—but also includes unique concerns like the desire for more ethnic shops and grocery stores within walking distance of residential areas. Additionally, a series of general meetings were held with the community at large, including a charrette to incorporate the community’s ideas into the plan.

Today, MRPC is in the final stages of the planning process after over two years of working with the community. In the near future, the commission will move to facilitate the implementation of smart growth zoning recommendations in the vicinity of the new station, including taking a closer look at area zoning and presenting suggested changes to the Fitchburg City Council for adoption.

MRPC is also exploring other opportunities for revitalizing the area. The commission has identified a number of underutilized sites including many of the area’s historic mill buildings. MRPC and the City of Fitchburg have made it a priority to stimulate activity in these properties, and are investigating funding sources like the EPA Brownfields Program to help conduct site assessments and remediation.

Thanks to the Wachusett Smart Growth Corridor Plan, much of the groundwork for future efforts has already been laid. With the plan adopted by the community, the region is moving towards a more economically resilient future. Through leveraging new station area investment in smart ways, North Central Massachusetts can maximize opportunities to attract new well-placed growth, creating lasting connectivity for the region.