The biggest business stories of 2018 in Central Massachusetts spanned diverse industries and involved everything from baseball to espionage. It was a year of big spending, too — on construction, legal settlements and acquisitions. And then there was the sound of a glass ceiling shattering at one of Worcester’s oldest institutions.
Here’s to 2018.
Finally, a developer
The Pawtucket Red Sox got a lot of attention when the team finally decided to relocate to Worcester’s Canal District in 2021. But the deal hangs largely hangs together because of a developer named Denis Dowdle and a long-vacant patch of land in the middle of the city.
While Worcester builds the $100 million, 10,000-seat Polar Park and state agencies plan a makeover of the tangled intersection known as Kelley Square, Mr. Dowdle will develop two new hotels, 250 apartments and about 65,000 square feet of retail space on a 17-acre parcel that was once home to Wyman-Gordon industrial operations.
He called it the last big development site in Worcester and estimated his part of the project could cost about $90 million in its first phase.
Mr. Dowdle has tackled big projects before. Madison Properties, his Boston-based firm, is redeveloping the Woburn land made famous in “A Civil Action.” In Worcester, he turned 43 acres along Route 146, previously home to U.S. Steel, into a Walmart store and other shops.
Reliant gets a new owner, cash
Reliant Medical Group of Worcester had a history dating to 1929, a tradition rooted in holding down spending and a plan to build sparkling new clinics. What it didn’t have was enough money to keep going on its own.
That’s why the group medical practice, formerly known as the Fallon Clinic, agreed in 2017 to a sale to Optum Inc., an arm of health care giant United Health Group Inc. of Minnetonka, Minnesota. The sale closed in 2018, earning Reliant $28 million for a new charitable foundation, $186 million for new clinics and $35 million for additional expansion expenses.
Since then, Reliant has proceeded with the opening of new clinics around Worcester County. Some have been constructed in former retail spaces. All signify that Reliant has new resources and vigor.
“The more you’re able to invest in these things, the better you’re able to recruit and retain providers, the more that you’re able to invest in actually taking better care of patients,” Dr. Tarek Elsawy, Reliant president and chief executive, said in July. “So to me it’s a very sort of logical and sequential process.”
The Worcester Club is, technically, a private dining club in the historic Isaac Davis House near downtown. But here’s the thing about businesses and dining: Deals get done over food.
Women could not join the Worcester Club until 1988. It would take another 30 years for a woman to nab the top office.
Moira Moynihan-Manoog took over as president of the club in 2018. She rose through the club’s board of directors after joining in the late 1990s. Now she’s tasked with, among other things, updating the club’s image.
“We are trying to change the perception of the club,” she said in an interview this year. “We have four women on the board (out of 15 total). That’s the most we’ve had since I’ve been on the board. About 15 percent of our members are women. We’d certainly welcome more women.”
Hanover bids farewell to Chaucer
Hanover Insurance Group Inc. of Worcester jumped into international markets in 2011 when it acquired a specialty insurer in London called Chaucer.
Where Hanover insured cars and homes, Chaucer wrote policies on everything from oil tankers to nuclear power stations.
But the relationship was not to be for long. Hanover agreed in 2018 to sell Chaucer to China Reinsurance Group Corp. for a cool $950 million, about double what Hanover paid for the business.
Hanover Chief Executive John C. Roche explained to investors that Chaucer had diversified Hanover’s business but also exposed it to risk from global catastrophes.
And that money? Hanover is emphasizing its national profile, so the company reported the cash would go to investments, funding for its profitable business and even some payouts to investors.
A new industry rises
No one really knew what to expect when Massachusetts residents voted to legalize marijuana, but one thing became clear in November when sales of recreational pot started: People want their weed.
Consumers lined up for hours outside Cultivate Holdings LLC in Leicester.
“I’ve been waiting for this for 40 years, to be able to walk in a place in my state and buy a pack of joints like a pack of cigarettes or a pack of beer,” one woman said gleefully as she left the store.
The state Cannabis Control Commission, which plans to put its headquarters in Worcester, expects annual sales of marijuana in Massachusetts to hit $1 billion as more retailers open.
And a number of those will be in Central Massachusetts. At last count, the commission had awarded provisional licenses to businesses planning recreational retail sales in Fitchburg, Uxbridge, Oxford, Worcester and Gardner.
Worcester Regional Airport, which has long struggled to attract airlines, had cause to celebrate in 2018.
Low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways Corp. launched daily service to New York City, on top of its existing service to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in Florida. About 122,000 travelers scheduled flights in and out of Worcester’s airport over the 12 months ended Aug. 31, up about 13 percent over the previous year, according to Bureau of Transportation statistics.
American Airlines Inc. started twice daily service to Philadelphia in the fall. And Delta Airlines Inc. announced plans to fly between ORH and Detroit starting next year.
Still, not all was perfect. About 36 percent of all flights at the airport were delayed during the first 10 months of 2018, according to transportation data.
Don’t blame the weather, which has a tendency to envelope the hilltop facility with fog. In fact, the airport installed a $30 million instrument landing system in 2018.
About 40 percent of all delays were caused by air carriers, data showed.
Redevelopment of Worcester’s downtown continued in 2018, with some notable openings.
Roseland Residental Trust, a business of New Jersey-based Mack-Cali Co., opened its 365-unit luxury apartment complex in February. Known as 145 Front at CitySquare, the $92 million development was built on the site of a former shopping center.
XSS Hotels of New Hampshire opened its 170-room AC Hotel by Marriott nearby in April, a project that cost about $30 million. Regional restaurant chain 110 Grill threw open its doors in May.
Investors continued to flock downtown, too. The Krock family, which has long owned Worcester commercial buildings, bought the former Unum Group offices on Chestnut Street for $1.9 million, while renovating the Central Building at 332 Main St. into housing and retail spaces.
Obiora Menkiti of Washington, D.C., and his father, poet and retired philosophy professor Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, went on a buying spree. Their combined purchases totaled more than $3.6 million and one buy, a former pawnshop at 536 Main St. that the younger Mr. Menkiti is purchasing, has yet to close.
AMSC gets its day in court
After seven years, hundreds of job losses and a battle that stretched around the globe, AMSC in 2018 finally heard the verdict it had long sought against a Chinese company accused of nearly bringing the Devens-based company to its knees: guilty.
A federal jury in Wisconsin rendered the verdict against Sinovel Wind Group Co. Ltd., which had been accused of stealing wind turbine trade secrets from AMSC.
The case played out against an increasingly tense trade relationship between the United States and China. President Donald Trump has railed against China’s practices, slapped tariffs on Chinese imports and threatened Beijing with further actions.
American Superconductor Corp., as the Ayer-based company is more formally known, agreed to $57.5 million in restitution from Sinovel. The Trump administration’s growing trade war with China continues.
UMass Memorial consolidates
UMass Memorial Health Care of Worcester, the largest health care provider in Central Massachusetts, spent a lot of time in 2018 defending unpopular decisions.
The nonprofit health care system closed the small but beloved Plumley Village Health Services clinic in Worcester. In Leominster it shuttered an 11-bed pediatric unit and a small cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation service. It closed an urgent care center in Fitchburg. Endoscopy procedures ended at Clinton Hospital in Clinton.
The goal was to reduce expenses, but UMass Memorial still finished its fiscal year in September with a $28 million loss from operations. Investments, which had helped in recent years to bolster the bottom line, were anemic. UMass Memorial ended its year with a total loss of $19.3 million.
Dr. Eric Dickson, UMass Memorial president and chief executive, described it as a “bad year” and said restructuring will continue.
“We can’t lose $28 million year over year,” he said. “I think everybody understands that.”
These stories made headlines, too:
Action! Worcester, a nonprofit organization devoted to building community, cut ties with the Worcester Business Development Corp. at the IdeaLab downtown, leaving one of the city’s best known co-working centers … Primetals Technologies Ltd. announced it would leave its aging factory in Worcester to build a new plant for steel production equipment in Sutton … Foodies gained another retail outlet when Whole Foods Market opened its first Central Massachusetts store in Shrewsbury, complete with memorabilia from the former Spag’s store that once stood on the site … Cereal maker Post Holdings Inc. announced plans to shutter its Weetabix factory in Clinton, cutting 180 jobs … Media consolidation continued, with the Worcester Sun ceasing publication and GateHouse Media LLC (owner of the Telegram & Gazette) acquiring the Holden Landmark Corp., including Worcester Magazine.