North Quabbin Commons growing as Athol seeks more business opportunities

  • Construction of the soon-to-be Taco Bell is viewed across the street from the Wendy's restaurant at North Quabbin Commons in Athol. Athol Daily News/Deborrah Porter

  • It is hoped the unfinished section next to Hobby Lobby (right rear) will soon be filled with businesses. Athol Daily News/Deborrah Porter

  • The skeleton of another row of businesses at the North Quabbin Commons as seen recently. Deborrah porter

Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2019 10:01:16 PM

ATHOL — The ongoing development of the North Quabbin Commons is one part of a strategic commercial investment plan, years in the making, that includes hefty infrastructure upgrades, a “job creation corridor” in South Athol and expanding the town’s corporate tax base.

Town Manager Shaun Suhoski estimates that Athol has seen more than $1 billion in public and private investments since 2014, with more on the horizon.

Staging for the North Quabbin Commons began about eight years ago, Suhoski said, with the help of James Meehan, chairman of the Economic Development Industrial Corporation (EDIC). He sought a deal with Market Basket owner Artie Demoulas to begin development of the specially zoned Business Improvement District off Templeton Road. The special designation allows “prompt and efficient” permitting through local boards and commissions.

“To attract this type of investment in such a short window and in a small community is not easy,” Suhoski said. “The work of many individuals dating back over a decade to put together land and attract the attention of Artie Demoulas cannot be understated.”

Two different developers have partnered with the EDIC to build out the over 350,000 square foot North Quabbin Commons: Market Basket and Athol Development LLC. Market Basket’s real estate developer, Retail Management & Development (RMD), oversees the western side of the Commons where Maurice’s, Starbucks, Athol Cinemas 8, the 110 Grill, the new Pet Supplies Plus and Hobby Lobby await new neighbors.

In the coming years, taxes collected from the Market Basket building, about $138,000 per year, will pay off $2.8 million the town borrowed to built water and sewer infrastructure in the North Quabbin Commons, Suhoski said. In all, the RMD side of the North Quabbin Commons development will generate $440,951 in property taxes annually.

A North Carolina company, Athol Development LLC owned by Stephen Goodman and partners, covers the western side of the Commons and is home to a Wendy’s, a soon-to-be Taco Bell and 26,000 square foot building under construction that will house Dollar Tree, AT&T and Tea House Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant with another location in Orange.

Kayrouz Realty expressed interest in opening a liquor store in the Dollar Tree building, but to accommodate it the town may have to seek special legislation to eliminate or increase the liquor license quota in Athol. 

“That involves Town Meeting vote,” said Athol’s director of Planning Eric Smith. “There’s a process that has to happen and there’s no guarantee that can move forward at this point.” 

Eventually, Suhoski said the town wants to extend water infrastructure behind the upcoming Dollar Tree to accommodate a hotel, and facilitate future building towards Garfield Street and up to Route 32.

“Probably more important than tax dollars is the provision of quality retail and service options for residents in Athol and the region,” Suhoski said. “These businesses help keep local dollars in the community as well as bringing in revenue from folks outside the region.”

The commercial real estate firm Sullivan Hayes calls the vicinity of the North Quabbin Commons an “underserved trade area” with high visibility, little competition and great potential for growth. Hayes advertises a population of 7,964 people within a three-mile radius of the Commons with an average household income of $56,411.

Meanwhile, Kayrouz Realty is building a new gas station and Dunkin Donuts just up the road from the North Quabbin Commons, right next to Exit 18. After the site was cleared, construction halted for the season pending the proper permits to connect the site to the water and sewer systems from the North Quabbin Commons.

Like other geographically isolated former mill towns, Athol experienced an economic decline in recent decades as factories closed and recessions hit. However, the unemployment rate in Athol has been steadily falling for years, with a 9.1 percent unemployment in 2013, 6.5 percent in 2015 and 4.9 percent in 2017, according to figures from the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission.

The creation of a “job creation corridor” along South Athol Road is another project being considered for the distant future. A new highway interchange connecting South Athol Road to Route 2 would facilitate the business and industrial development of the road, including the 100-acre former Bidwell Farm property purchased by the town in 2009.

“We need to provide access for future growth,” Suhoski said.

In the town manager’s 2016 report, “Five Point Plan for Sustained Success”, a new Route 2 ramp would, “serve existing industries on South Athol Road and promote productive use of 100-acre Bidwell Property and others.”

While the North Quabbin Commons continues to grow uptown, town officials are also working to revamp downtown. The recent expansion and renovation of the Athol Library and construction of the new elementary school are signs of the town’s forward-thinking investment strategy, Suhoski said. The large-scale marijuana cultivator MassGrow LLC has also begun renovations to the former Union Twist Drill building, an investment the town manager estimates is between $20 million and $40 million dollars.

“Investment breeds investment and the greater North Quabbin region is reaping the rewards,” Suhoski said.

With the help of federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), the town this year will begin an approximate $3 million revitalization of Marble Street with new pavement, sidewalks, sewer and drainage, Suhoski said. The Exchange Street bridge will also see $800,000 worth of repairs. A new brewery, Atlantic Brewers and Distillers owned by Joseph Gochinski is currently under construction along Marble Street, and the Blind Pig is set to re-open sometime in February under new managers.

“Downtown is just so beautiful and historic, but it’s struggling,” Suhoski said. “It used to be a business hub with it’s own thriving economy. If we can create the right environment that can and will happen again.”

Behind the scenes, Smith has been working with Suhoski and others to develop a new Master Plan that shapes the town’s future growth strategies. They’re gathering feedback from town officials, holding public forums and forming a committee to address abandoned and vacant buildings throughout town.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@atholdailynews.com.

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