Saturday, March 28, 2015

What Is Wrong With Southbridge?

Ken O’Brien

Southbridge has struggled for over a decade with underperforming schools.

Southbridge has witnessed a continuing relative decline in property values.

Southbridge has experienced a steady decline in the number and variety of businesses in the community. 

Now, by a significant margin, we know that Southbridge has the highest rate of unemployment in Worcester County. 

In 1978-79 The National Civic League named Southbridge one of ten All-American Cities.

What has happened in the intervening 36 years? Many will point to the 1982 sale of The American Optical Company to M&R, while others will argue that it began with the company’s acquisition by Warner Lambert in 1967.

Others claim that the town’s problems changed with the transition from a town meeting to a manager/council form of government in 1973.

Then there is the popular, and misleading, belief that all that is wrong is our attitude. If we would just stop the negative talk everything would get better.

I believe that the real problem is a confluence of factors. It is an interaction of government structure, social fragmentation and lack of policy priorities.

Ultimately ii is a reflection of Shakespeare’s line from Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. 

What do you think is needed to restore Southbridge to being a positive and growing town?


  1. I don't think there's anything wrong with southbridge; it's just in a bad location. We're an hour from any major city, don't have any natural attractions to bring in tourists and are sandwiched between towns that are considered more desirable. Sturbridge and Charlton aren't exactly thriving either. We should lobby for a direct commuter line to Boston to help attract home buyers put of by the astronomical costs of Boston. Or, we could start small and encourage day trips by college students to the town. We don't have mountains or beaches we could open hiking and biking trails around the reservoirs and create zoning that would allow hostel-like hotels around town. Southbridge is a good base for exploring the region and there's a lot for a poor student to do here. If we're perceived as welcoming and supportive we could start to create a buzz for Southbridge as an easy weekend getaway.

    1. Rich-
      You have some good ideas - at least as a starting point. However, just who is supposed to do these things?

    2. .... the new recreation director who was hired without advertising at $21/hour?

      Unless he's too busy trying to get concerts on the common :-/

  2. So recently I've tried to get more involved with this town I call home. I volunteered to be on the Master Plan committee probably close to a year ago. I forgot about it completely until I was informed by a friend about 6 months later that I was on it.

    I still have yet to receive a notification about a meeting. I've been checking fairly diligently and have not seen any meeting notifications at all on the town site. The master plan is GREAT. I don't even mind the implications of the $100,000 cost to taxpayers. But if literally nothing is being done about it, and it's simply collecting dust on our shelves then that money was just a waste. And this town will just continue on a path devoid of any REAL economic development.

    The future isn't in minimum wage manufacturing jobs. The future is in everything the Economic Development Committee tries to do with little support or agreement. The future is in the master plan.

  3. Wow!!! Rome is burning and spending $100,000 of taxpayer money doesn't bother you?
    This is the type of logic that makes supporting the Eco.Dev. committee completely impossible,


    Too little, too late, Southbridge has dug itself too big hole to crawl out of.

  4. ....the money for the master plan has already been spent. It costs nothing to gather a volunteer board to begin making the plan a priority.

    It's OK to point out problems in town. There are certainly enough of them. But a defeatist attitude is not helping anything. "Too little too late" is unacceptable.

    1. It is rather funny that you see pragmatism as a defeatist attitude.

      Lack of pragmatism is exactly what is wrong with Southbridge!

  5. The point I’m making is that there is no real interest in or attempt at presenting an organized and unified effort to promote and market Southbridge. What we have is a mediocre (at best) Planning and Economic Development operation that justifies its continued existence on annual Community Bloc Grant renewals and occasionally assisting someone (such as Hunter Foote) who comes to them with a proposal. What we need is leadership in this department that will transform it into a focus for community re-definition and action.

    1. I think there's very little town government can actually do other than streamline regulations so opening a business isn't such a headache. I think they have been doing this for the past several years. The town needs private citizens to take the risk of opening a business. I don't know how government can convince people to take a risk like that. In my case, as much as I'd like to see more restaurants, bookstores and outfitters in town, my job keeps me fat, dumb and happy and at this point in my life I'm not willing to risk my regular paycheck.

      As far as the town economic development office goes, Sandy Accly does a good job with what she's given. The town historically underfunds her office which is, literally, a great shame. When I was on the council and brought up the idea of investing landfill royalty funds in her office, I was glad handed by the then town manager. In retrospect, I should have fought harder to make that happen.

      Finally, I don't believe in the master plan. It's a good concept but it's not backed by the money needed to implement it. It will gather dust on the shelf and never be seen again. To make it work, the committee should include and heavily rely on people with money to invest.

    2. Rich, I disagree that there is little that government can do. How many times has Councilor Clemence talked about creating business incubators while running for office only to forget about it when she was in office? What are TIFFS there for? What efforts are made at actual solicitation of businesses to locate here, let alone efforts at retention of those already here? What efforts exist for a micro-loan program to assist small-scale entrepreneurs?
      As for actions on the Council to improve things, I came to them when I was a Councilor with a complete design of a landfill roadway that went to route 20 as well as letters from all the intervening landowners (4) who would grant a right of way. All they wanted in return was Southbridge water. The then chairman said, “I will never allow anything that will benefit Charlton”.
      All of this and more is an indication why I’ve advocated Southbridge going to a mayoral form of Government. We need a local resident at the top who will champion and advocate for what the town really needs. A town manager merely pursues retention of their own job while providing cover for a collective to dodge responsibility for inaction or, worse, actions that actually damage the community long-term.

    3. My foregoing comments fail to include reference to your own example or the miserable failure of the school committee to improve the situation in the district school system.

  6. Cut the Fire InspectorApril 1, 2015 at 11:52 AM

    Local over regulation is killing any business trying to open in Southbridge. This is especially true of our crack fire inspector, or should I say crack-pot fire inspector. Aside from it being a needless position, our inspector makes it up as he goes along. Southbridge can start to make our town better by not cutting a firefighter \EMT, as our town manager has proposed, and cut the fire inspector position

  7. Ken, after writing a lengthy response to this yesterday, it went blank, so I'll paraphrase my novel.

    We can't determine what kind of town this is, but, we can impact the direction it heads in.

    Several years ago, a former councilor hated the idea of courting a college to town, since he didn't want it to be a "college town". At the time, we had the opportunity to try, at least, to encourage UMASS to use the AO for a law school. The only ones are in Boston and Springfield.

    Bringing a college brings well needed dollars, and professionals to town, meaning more businesses have a chance to thrive. Then, Rich's idea of a train from Southbridge to Boston makes sense, because people in Boston could come to Southbridge.

    The major problem is that we have to be focused on a plan of attack for encouraging people to come here...with more people are more tax dollars.

    Obviously, I'm oversimplifying it, since I don't want to write a long missive to have it disappear.



  8. Court Starbucks CorpApril 2, 2015 at 9:11 PM

    Starbucks is credited for cherry-picking prime locales. Get them to set up shop here and a flock of new businesses will surely follow.

    1. Rome is poverty strickenApril 2, 2015 at 11:44 PM

      Rome is poverty stricken and can't possibly support a starbucks., It can't support a five guys or any another top dollar venues when there are joblot type alternatives available offering more bang for your buck.

      Think low dollar high return volume ideas besides the welfare office.


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