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Charting new courses and moving ahead

WORCESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL – The year we’re about to leave – for some, maybe forget – saw several noteworthy business-related events in Central Massachusetts, but here’s our consensus selections for the top five stories of 2014. As a staff, we unanimously agreed on the top story. There was little debate over the remaining four.

(1) GE Healthcare Life Sciences announces it will move its U.S. headquarters to Marlborough, bringing with it about 500 jobs.

This was big on several levels, primarily the draw of a Fortune 10 firm to Central Massachusetts. And that’s just the beginning. Second, it gives the region some needed street cred in life sciences that was, for the most part, landing inside Route 128. Third, it’s a boost for the University of Massachusetts Medical School and its research efforts. A partnership with a company like GE can help procure more grants from the National Institutes for Health. Fourth, the region’s colleges will have another marquee employer to work with and supply talent for. This is especially good news for WPI and its Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center, which offers introductory and continuing education in this growing industry.

Of course, Marlborough made out a winner as well, drawing another big-name company to the city after Boston Scientific moved its headquarters from Natick and The TJX Cos. moved about 1,600 workers into the former Fidelity Investments campus.

(2) The Telegram & Gazette is sold in June and lays off about 25 people. Several months later, the new parent company is sold.

When New Media Investment Group takes over the 148-year-old daily newspaper, it will become the T&G’s fourth owner in less than two years. In 2013, New York Times Co. sold it to Boston Red Sox principal
owner John Henry essentially as a “throw in” with The Boston Globe. Last spring, after being unable to find a local owner for the T&G – which the
paper said was his stated intention – Henry sold it to Halifax Media of Daytona Beach, Fla., laying off about 25 staffers before the switch. In November, New Media, the parent company of GateHouse Media, owner of the MetroWest Daily News and several other media properties in the Bay State, announced it was paying $280 million to buy Halifax’s 36 papers, most of which are in the Southeast.

(3) Downtown redevelopment efforts in Worcester move forward as developers line up to build a hotel and housing in CitySquare; Quinsigamond Community College opens its downtown campus and Voke Lofts opens.

The first phase at CitySquare was marked by the demolition of the former Galleria Mall, the opening of Front Street to re-link the east and west sides of the city, and the building of the Saint Vincent Cancer Care Center and Unum Group’s new offices. 2014 saw the opening of the Voke Lofts apartments inside
the former Worcester Vocational Technical High School, and QCC’s downtown move with the debut of its Healthcare and Workforce Development Center inside the former Telegram & Gazette building on Franklin Street. The next two years will likely see construction of more than 350 apartments in the open space across Foster Street from the Worcester Regional Transit Authority hub, as well as progress toward construction of a 150-room, four-star hotel nearby.

Both projects could be completed sometime in 2016. Earlier this month, the T&G reported that the Worcester Planning Board approved plans for the apartments.

The downtown plan was also cited as a reason another developer wants to put up a 120-room hotel just two blocks away off Washington Square.

(4) UMass Memorial Health Care’s tenuous finances take a turn for the better late in the year as the largest health care system in the region deals with the effects of health care reform.

Change can be painful, invigorating, or both. For UMass Memorial Health Care, change yielded a lot of pain as the largest health care system – and largest employer – in Central Massachusetts turned in a $55 million operating loss in its 2013 fiscal year. It also took a hit in the credit markets in June when Standard & Poor’s lowered the system’s credit rating from stable to negative.

But after fiscal year 2014 closed in September, following job cuts and battles with nurses’ unions, the system was on its way toward ending the cycle with close to a $30 million operational surplus. It also shrunk its asset portfolio by selling Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer and cutting its ownership stake in Worcester’s Fairlawn Rehabilitation Hospital from 50 percent to 20 percent.

“What we saw happen to us is about the future of health care,” CEO Eric Dickson told us, citing the shift of patient care away from hospitals and into homes, more minimally invasive surgeries, and a shift toward technology-enabled “remote consultations” between doctors and patients.

(5) Laurie Leshin takes the helm as the first female president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

There aren’t too many college presidents who have an asteroid that bears their name. But the asteroid – 4922 Leshin – is in no danger of striking the planet, Laurie Leshin playfully told a gathering of about 700 business leaders earlier this month.

WPI’s hiring of Leshin represented a bigger impact this year. She’s a successful woman in a male-dominated field, a geochemist and space scientist who spent six years as a senior leader at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and worked on the Mars Curiosity rover mission. At a time of increased emphasis on the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in education, her expertise in both education and the sciences, coupled with her engaging manner (follow
@LaurieofMars on Twitter and you’ll find out) sends a message that a “nerdy” field need not be exclusive to people who see themselves as nerds.

More women have been getting that message. The hiring of Leshin, who took office in June, came at a time when the proportion of full-time female undergraduates at WPI had grown steadily from 28.3 percent in the fall of 2009 to nearly 33 percent in 2013.

This article by Rick Saia originally appeared here.