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WATCH AN INTERVIEW WITH SAM PALMER OF WESTFORD REAL ESTATE HERE.
To the untrained eye, Westford’s business corridor may seem to be thriving, but growing vacancies suggest an economy in the midst of disruption.
“We’re very concerned with the loss of business, especially retail businesses,…and the vacancies,” said Thomas Barry, Chairman of the town’s Economic Development Committee.
Storefronts are empty as retail outlets depart and service-oriented businesses, such as restaurants and fitness centers move in.
Once an agricultural community, Westford today is a suburban town defined by the Route 110 [also known as Littleton Road] mixture of corporate and small businesses, large shopping plazas, car dealerships, health facilities and doctors offices, restaurants and residences. Cornerstone Square at Boston and Littleton Roads, opened in 2012, adding among other retail businesses, an animal hospital, Marshalls clothing store, Petco animal supplies, a liquor store, several restaurants, and a Market Basket grocery store as the anchor.
A stone’s throw from Cornerstone is the Westford Valley Marketplace, an older plaza that attracted a Whole Foods grocery store in 2016 and offers a CVS drug store, Paper Store, Olympia Sports, Starbucks, Jo-ann Fabrics and Crafts store and restaurants. Further east on the road, Princeton Properties added 200 residential properties in 2015. For several years, the tax dollars that come with new growth boosted the town’s revenues.
But now as the business wave crests, vacancies are cropping up along the state highway. [Watch Sam Palmer’s interview here, then continue below]
Out of 3 million square feet of total commercial space in Westford, about 341,000 square feet are empty, according to Sam Palmer of Westford Real Estate. Palmer used data from the Costar Commercial Group to gauge Westford’s commercial occupancies.
“It puts vacancies at about 12 percent which seems high to me,” he stated.
Barry agreed. In the Westford Valley Marketplace alone, 11 out of 30 retail spaces are vacant, he noted. Further down the road at 355 Littleton Road, 10,000 out of a total of 18,000 square feet of space are vacant. Following a pattern, the space under lease is with a restaurant and a fitness center. The restaurant space has been leased to Craft Brewers Exchange, and a portion of the retail space is occupied by ILoveKickBoxing of Westford.
WESTFORD IN CONTEXT
The Route 110 economic artery slices the town in two and connects Chelmsford to Littleton bringing heavy traffic, an influx of retail workers, and a stream of commuters that file each weekday into Technology Park East and Technology Park West, both located on the road. The development of the two business parks led to a build out of much of the land along Route 110.
THE HISTORY OF BUSINESS IN WESTFORD
Neatly wedged between Route 3 and Interstate 495 and with acres of undeveloped farmland and apple orchards, at one time, Westford became a bedroom community in the 1980s and 1990s. Seeing promise, developers purchased land and built homes to which families flocked and the town grew. Throughout the 1980s, Westford was almost exclusively residential, said Barry, who moved to the town in 1983.
But then came commerce.
Westford’s proximity to highways made it an effective location for businesses, Barry noted, and with the growth of businesses along Route 110, the town had a much more attractive demographic.
“Westford is a very desirable town…,” Barry said.
By 2008, Sonus Networks, Juniper Networks, NetScout Systems, and ESNR were all located on Route 110. But also in 2008 the Great Recession, brought a dip in business prospects. Town Manager Jodi Ross, who came into the position that summer, recalls growing vacancies and economic stagnation. Local revenues and excise taxes on automobiles were down, Ross noted in a 2008 newspaper article.
“Times were tough back then. A lot of people lost their jobs, there was open office space…it took a few years to start turning around,” she said.
Still, the area had an economic artery poised for growth, including the 2009 relocation of hundreds of IBM employees to the software development buildings on Route 110 in Littleton and the opening of Boch Honda in 2010.
Red Hat, Inc., a global open-source software provision company, moved to Westford in 2008. According to Ross, it was Red Hat’s 2010 expansion that served as the foundation for the commercial growth that would occur two years later with the opening of Cornerstone Square.
More recently, many new service-oriented businesses have opened, such as Fuse Bistro on 2 Powers Road, Thai on the Fly at 439 Littleton Road, and The Okipoke in Cornerstone Square.
BUSINESS SATURATION AND VACANCIES
Route 110 is reaching build-out status, preventing large companies from settling there, Barry observed. Existing properties are faced with vacancies as chain stores and online shopping shut out locally owned retail businesses.
Why can’t the town just fill the vacancies and bring more business to Route 110? The answer lies in the type of businesses who are affected by each problem: the town would profit from larger businesses for which Route 110 does not have space, and has room for smaller retail businesses which are finding it increasingly difficult to turn a profit and thus are not moving into the area.
The build-out is significant when it comes to business growth largely because it keeps industries out of the area. The industrial tech parks on the east and west ends of Route 110 have been essential to its development. They not only draw residents but create an increased demand for services with the daily influx of employees.
Though there are several technical and biotechnical industries looking to settle in the suburbs of Boston which would otherwise be an excellent fit for Westford, town officials cannot accept them due to the lack of space.
This problem is only compounded by the continued construction in the area. For example, the 240 apartments under construction on 23 acres behind Red Hat are occupying about 300,000 square feet of the 500,000 square foot parcel, leaving little to no room for an industrial business to move in.
“When you have a tech park east and a tech park west, the employees use the services — especially restaurants…,” said Barry.
Barry calls the industries in Westford the “nucleus” of its economic growth. These companies include Red Hat, IBM, Cynosure, Boch Honda, Juniper Networks, UTC Aerospace, and others, all of which have either moved to or expanded in Westford over the past 10 years and have greatly influenced the town’s economic growth.
But that doesn’t solve the problem of vacant retail space.
“Right now, I think we have more vacancies than ever,” Barry said of the empty storefronts.
Route 110, while projecting the appearance of a bustling commercial street, is also dotted with multiple signs advertising space for lease.
Barry and William Nussbum, also of the EDC, said the construction of Cornerstone Square has been the only significant business growth in the area since 2012. This trend is a concerning symptom of the way small business is changing, said the two EDC members.
But Ross is not worried about the vacancies along Route 110, noting that commercial space has increased. The fact that so much construction has occurred in the past decade is impressive, she said, and vacancies are only natural when building occurs.
“…in some cases, they haven’t been filled yet…you have to look at, how much new retail has come,” said Ross. “I don’t think it’s that there’s an overwhelming vacancy problem.”
However, when looking at the cause of the Route 110 vacancies, Barry and Nussbum find that small retail businesses that would normally fit in those spaces are shut in on all sides by a high rent and overwhelming competition from large-scale companies like Amazon.
A major cause for the vacancies in Westford is the shift to online shopping, which is causing product-oriented businesses to become outdated. Furthermore, small-town businesses are being taken over by chains because of the price point.
A prime example of this is the defunct Toy Shop of Westford, owned by Sonya Kalajian, which shut its doors in 2015, seemingly because the shop couldn’t compete with the cheaper prices of online outlets. Kalajian did not return a call seeking comment and did not talk to the media when the store closed. OrangeTheory Fitness eventually took over the space.
“All towns are fighting the same problem,” Nussbum said, pointing to a recent study that showed businesses in Westford and elsewhere are more service-oriented than product-oriented.
Ross, on the other hand, believes that service industries are what the town needs, and while larger, higher-tech industries are good for jobs, they can cause controversy.
“Every time we destroy land, people don’t like that,” she said. “There has to be a balance between small and large businesses, I think.”
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
With Route 110 at saturation, the EDC members have begun looking at space along Route 40 as a secondary business corridor.
According to Ross, residents will be opposed to the idea because unlike Route 110, Route 40 [also known as Groton Road] is mainly residential. Route 110 has always been zoned as the town’s commercial center, thus concentrating all development into one place in a way that does not affect the living conditions of the majority of Westford residents.
Ross maintains that development on Route 40 will not extend enough to affect residents in the area. She does not foresee an explosion of businesses in the area, envisioning a few small restaurants and local businesses.
“There’s a sensitivity to development on [Route 40],” she said.
For Ross, business growth could very well mean reusing business space. She pointed to an automobile recycling yard at 16 Littleton Road which will be turned into townhouse units as a prime example of reusing space.
Westford’s tax revenue is currently 14 percent commercial and 86 percent residential.
The current residential tax rate is $16.41 per $1,000 of valuation and the commercial rate is $16.61 with a 10 percent discount for commercial properties valued at less than $1 million.
In Fiscal 2017, new growth was valued at $43.3 million, down 22 percent from fiscal 2016, ending June 30. It brought in $707,422 in revenue.
The following fiscal year, new growth was valued at $24.88 million, down 43 percent, and bringing only $409,000 in growth revenue.
The more tax burden businesses take on, the less residents have to pay, and so the EDC continually searches to increase business in the town.
PRESERVING THE TOWN’S CHARACTER
However, the EDC also has to keep the character of the town in mind, and they look for businesses accordingly.
“We have to categorize what’s good for the town,” Nussbum said.
Westford has changed dramatically from its humble beginnings as a small town, but at its core is still a residential community. Ross maintains that while bringing business to the town is essential for its growth and success, maintaining Westford’s character is paramount.
“Westford residents are concerned about the beauty of the town, the ambiance, and so on,” she said. “Our doors are open, particularly to the right kind of business.”
Varshini Ramanathan and Mehul Shrivastava are seniors at Westford Academy.
Staff Reporter Joyce Pellino Crane contributed to this story.
UPDATE – A video of an interview with Sam Palmer of Westford Real Estate was added.