Highest Unemployed Towns in Worcester Co.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Massachusetts’ unemployment rate has dropped to 6.8%, but a town-by-town analysis by GoLocalWorcester, using data from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, shows that several towns in Worcester County are well above that number.
Worcester County’s overall unemployment rate is 7.1%, but more than a dozen towns within the county reported unemployment at 8% or higher in December 2011, (the City of Worcester reported a rate of 7.7%).
Southbridge tops the list at 10.1%, and represents the challenge struggling towns in Worcester County face: finding the resources to diversify industrial economies.
Mill Towns Struggling
Executive Director of Economic Development and Planning in Southbridge, Cassandra Acly, called the town, “the child of the industrial revolution.” With the Quinebaug River cutting through the town, Southbridge attracted a variety of industries in the early 20th century, including The American Optical Company.
At its height, Acly said, the company employed more than 7,000 people. “Here is where everything was, the hospital, the fire department. Then the trend came to automate low-skilled labor and move business operations offshore, and it really affected Southbridge in a big way.”
American Optical shut down in 1984, and Southbridge never bounced back.
Acly said with Southbridge’s large population of residents earning low to moderate income, “We need the jobs more than anyone else.”
Acly told GoLocalWorcester she largely holds sub-standard industrial housing accountable for Southbridge’s economic woes, and said the town suffers from “community-wide low self-esteem.”
Webster is another former mill town suffering from economic growing pains. “Webster used to be the economic engine of the region,” said Webster Town Administrator John McAuliffe. Like Southbridge, Webster has a large amount of housing stock leftover from its factory days. McAuliffe hopes demolishing much of these “nuisance properties,” along with increased mixed use of still-existing mills, will encourage new business growth. But he’s realistic about future job creation, “I’d love to say we’re bringing back manufacturing jobs, but I don’t see much of that.”
Industrial Fitchburg has never rebounded from the 1998 closing of the General Electric plant, despite Fitchburg’s Downtown Urban Renewal Plan, which has spanned more than 10 years. At one time, the General Electric plant employed over 600 people with a $30 million annual payroll. Now, Fitchburg’s unemployment rate is 9.9%. Here's a look at some of the town's specific employment data that are above the state average.
Closing Shops and Underemployment
Closing shops and relocating businesses have crippled Gardner, whose unemployment rate is 8.8%.
“Gardner is notoriously above the state average. We’ve been hit hard by the economy in the past years. Some long-standing businesses have closed, or moved out of town,” said Gardner Mayor Mark P. Hawke.
Hawke cited furniture producer Nichols & Stone, which closed its Gardner plant in July 2008, “They were the quintessential Gardner business, and they employed about 125 people - over 300 at their height. You aren’t going to replace that right away.”
Linda Alger, Chair of the Royalston Board of Selectmen, said the community’s 9.1% unemployment rate does not even represent her town’s struggle, “We have a lot of citizens that are unemployed or underemployed. People with advanced degrees are working in manual labor.”
Alger said the lack of jobs in nearby towns like Templeton (9% unemployment) directly affect Royalston, because most Royalston citizens commute 10 to 30 miles to work. “When it’s bad in the area, it’s bad for everybody. People will take whatever jobs they can get,” she said.
Searching for Solutions
While more affluent towns in Worcester County diversify their economies by constructing biomedical business parks and attracting pharmaceutical companies, Acly said towns like Southbridge simply do not have the same level of resources.
For now, her department is planning a showcase, slated for May, that she hopes will appeal to commercial real estate brokers and developers from across the state, “We have a lot of problems, but we also have a lot of really good things here. Our taxes are low, our services are extremely high, and we feel Southbridge is the place to establish a business.”
In the long run, Acly said, “Education is the key.” She said she is grateful for the presence of Quinsigamond Community College, which she hopes will improve the skill sets of Southbridge’s future workforce. Hawke agreed, and said area colleges “do a tremendous amount of work in career development.”
“But it’s taking a couple of years. Certain areas have been hit harder by this economy,” Hawke said.