MASSIVE – Rick Lombardi was drained by the drive.
The former newspaperman had worked in Boston for a decade, much of it spent handling public relations for the environmental affairs office under Gov. Bill Weld and his successor, Paul Cellucci.
But as is the case for many Massachusetts residents, the daily weekday trips in and out of Boston were brutal. Lombardi’s last Boston-based job was with the Suffolk County sheriff’s office.
“After 10 years of commuting, it was just too much,” he says now. “My kids were getting older, I was just tired of always being on the road.”
His business plan on what to do next took about two years to create. Inspired by what he’d seen in Boston — the popularity of wine shops — he opened his own in downtown Marlborough.
The commute, of course, improved instantly: Lombardi, who grew up in Worcester, had been living in Marlborough since 1982, when he was 26 years old.
He had fond memories of the city: Before Interstate 290 was built nearby, his mother used to work at the Raytheon plant in Sudbury, and Lombardi remembered Marlborough’s mix of urban and rural, not to mention the old apple orchards.
Lombardi opened “The Vin Bin” in 2004, as American wine consumption was on the rise. He found a spot next to what is now a seafood restaurant and a Starbucks. In 2011, he moved The Vin Bin across the street to a 1909 building that once housed the city’s police and fire departments. The words “CENTRAL FIRE STATION” are still on the front of the building, above The Vin Bin’s sign.
After the fire department moved out in the mid-1990s, the city poured $1 million into overhauling the building’s electrical, plumbing, and venting systems. The Vin Bin became its first tenant, after the city sold off the building, and now shares it with a Planned Parenthood health center.
The big bay doors that fire engines used to tear out of have been refurbished, now a light blue color that matches the slightly deeper blue umbrellas shading diners on the small patio. Inside, before you get to the café and the rows of wine, whiskey and craft beer, there’s a fireman’s hat and a wooden sign that says “HOSE No. 1,” a nod to the past.
Marlborough is at a crossroads. That’s not just a figure of speech.
If you stand on the corner of Main Street and Bolton Street, where The Vin Bin is, Boston is about 30 miles east. Worcester is about 20 miles west.
Head northwest, and you’ll eventually hit where I-290 and I-495 meet. Go southwest, there’s the Mass. Turnpike, the easy-on, easy-off road that drew so many high-tech companies to the area.
“I’d love to think it’s because of me and the city council, but realistically it’s about the location,” quips Mayor Arthur Vigeant.
“I think we have a lot to offer and we’re willing to work with people,” he adds. “But location is the No. 1 decision-maker.”
Before the high-tech companies, shoe manufacturing was the big thing driving the local economy.
According to the Marlborough Historical Society, there were 17 shoe factories in operation in 1860.
Three years later, John Frye opened a shop in Elm Street, and in 1899, his company became the first in the area to convert its factory from steam to electricity. (It’s now a globally recognized brand, The Frye Company, with shoe stores in New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C.)
“Marlborough always had a lot of industry. Even a hundred years ago, when it had the shoe industry,” Lombardi says.
“From that mentality and culture, it attracted the new industries,” he adds.
In 2017, at least 40 companies moved or expanded in Marlborough, bringing with them 450 jobs and taking over more than 300,000 square feet of commercial space, according to the city’s economic development arm.
It’s not just companies. Between 1950 and 1990, Marlborough’s population jumped to 31,800 from 16,000 people, the historical society says. The current population stands at about 40,000.
Meredith Harris, who grew up in Norton, a small town near Taunton, bought her first home in Marlborough not long ago.
She previously worked at MIT, on the team behind the redevelopment of Cambridge’s Kendall Square, a neighborhood that once had distilleries, power plants and candy factories and now is overstocked with tech companies and outposts for giants like Facebook and Amazon.
Mayor Vigeant came calling and Harris went to work for the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation in 2015. She’s now head of the entity tasked with selling and promoting the city, enticing current and future employers with financing and incentives, as well as keeping the tax base stable so residents aren’t bearing too much of the burden.
Her predecessor had brought in the big fish like Boston Scientific and a “west campus” for Framingham-based TJX, which owns TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. When Harris started, she focused on retention and expansion, big and small.
Harris says her team checks with existing companies and asks how things are going. How are the employees doing? Do they need anything?
“Through that process we’ve learned a lot about what these types of corporations are looking for,” she said.
For Harris, it’s not just about retention. Marlborough continues to draw employers like Whole Foods’ North Atlantic regional headquarters, which moved into the same building that houses GE Healthcare Life Sciences and Quest Diagnostics.
Building that ecosystem that includes big and small companies is key, according to Harris. “They love the fact that there’s other smaller, mid-size companies doing similar things,” she says of the big companies.
Holographix, a tech manufacturer, moved from Hudson to Marlborough in 2017, bringing itself and 30 new jobs to I-495. Allegro, which makes computer circuits, is moving to Marlborough after a 53-year stint in Worcester.
The tight housing market in the Boston area has driven more and more residents to Marlborough and the surrounding communities, and the companies are aware of that, according to Harris.
“You’re starting to see, in general, people are coming west, because the prices in the Greater Boston area, you can come out here and get the same type of product for a fraction of the cost,” Harris says. “Companies are starting to realize that.”
Mayor Vigeant wanted a white tablecloth restaurant.
He called a developer-friend to ask around about bringing a high-end eatery to Marlborough.
Harris says city economic development officials often heard from employers like General Electric and Boston Scientific that they wanted one. There were a few here, but they were looking for more options to bring over clients and teams, or have corporate meetings over dinner.
“That was something we were hearing over and over again,” Harris says.
“It’s really about things for their employees, keeping their employees happy, places for them to go to eat,” Vigeant adds.
Vigeant’s friend reached out to another developer, Robert Walker of Westford-based Ryan Development.
Walker proposed something at the site of an overgrown apple orchard. It wasn’t exactly what the mayor had set out to get, but two years later that old orchard is now two hotels totaling 245 rooms, 30 bowling lanes, bumper cars, go-kart racing, arcade games, laser tag, a Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, Protein House, Friendly’s and a half dozen other eateries and businesses. All right off Interstate 495 and Route 20.
The Apex Center project was helped by a $3 million state grant for infrastructure improvements to Route 20.
“I don’t have my white tablecloth restaurant but I have a half million square feet of entertainment space,” Vigeant said during a sit-down in his fourth-floor office inside City Hall.
There hasn’t been much fallout since the $160 million development opened, according to Vigeant. “The only complaint I’ve heard is the waiting lines for the bowling and the wall-climbing,” the mayor says.
But the Apex Center – which is bringing an estimated 1,600 jobs to the city – is an example of how the city swings into action when a project comes along. City officials approved an agreement and a master concept in July 2016, and the developer broke ground in 2017, and the Apex Center started opening later that year.
From the time they took the last apple tree down and opened the place, roughly a year went by. The fact that Marlborough and the developer were able to move so quickly is partly attributable to its city council-mayor form of government. (The project needed a zoning change in order to proceed.)
“Everybody came to the table and said this is something we really want to have happen,” Harris says.
Anyone who walks in with a good project gets attention, according to Vigeant.
“Some of them are just kicking the tires and some of them want to do something,” he says. “We work with them all.”
Even with the slower pace, the better commuting times and the sprawling entertainment center, Marlborough still faces similar challenges to Greater Boston, like housing and transportation issues.
While the MBTA often struggles to provide reliable public transportation to Boston and its surrounding communities, Marlborough doesn’t have any rapid transit.
“We’re not on the commuter rail,” Vigeant acknowledges. (The closest MBTA station is in Southborough, on the Worcester/Framingham line.)
The mayor says the city is working with employers about alternative transportation modes for employees. They’ve sat down with Quest Diagnostics, a company with a lot of people coming from the Boston/Cambridge area, to talk about shuttles from Southborough.
Harris says they’ve also worked with ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to make sure their services are available in the area. There’s also the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority, which has buses swing through downtown Marlborough and stop at the Apex Center.
Then there’s Zagster, the Cambridge-based bike sharing company. As of 2017, 183 people took 255 rides in the city, which has 30 bikes and 5 stations, according to Harris’ agency.
The city is also attempting to create more housing: Amid the influx of thousands of new jobs, they’ve seen 950 new units in the last six years. Two complexes, totaling 600 apartments, were just built, according to Vigeant.
Vigeant says Marlborough is trying to do a little bit of everything: Rentals, condos, and housing for people over the age of 55. The city’s average home price is roughly $400,000.
“The goal now is: We have the apartments, hopefully they stay here a couple of years, get comfortable with the area, get married and have a couple of kids and look at a house in the area,” Vigeant says.
The executives of the companies flocking to Marlborough want someplace to live, too, and not have to take a helicopter home, according to the mayor. “I want to be the place where they want to drop their company and feel comfortable they have everything they need here,” he says.
Marlborough met economic headwinds and survived in a way other cities and towns didn’t, perhaps aided by the solid base of companies and its location near so many crucial highways and roads.
But the next downturn will happen eventually. Good times don’t last.
“It’s coming and we know that,” says Lombardi, the owner of the Vin Bin.
Despite that, he’s moving to expand by opening another location inside the plaza across from the Apex Center, trying to capture different segments of the market.
Lombardi remembers the last recession and how tough it was. But you give yourself a fighting chance by opening different avenues, he says. “That’s been our key, always be changing, always be evolving.”
The café is the big draw on the Main Street, and that will continue as his flagship. The new location, called “Vin Bin West” and near the Apex Center, will focus on wine, craft beer and more hand-cut cheese.
For the city’s part, Harris says they’re laying the groundwork to weather the next recession now, by maintaining their good relationships with the companies that are here, so that when the economic takes a turn, they won’t necessarily think about leaving. “They’re built into the community,” she says.
Vigeant, who is an accountant by trade, says the city is in “great” financial shape, with a stabilization fund, meaning free cash is available if needed.
The state isn’t likely going to give him more aid and that’ll go down when the economy drops.
The mayor still maintains an office a few steps away from City Hall for his accounting practice. It’s a back-up in case he’s ever tossed from office, he quips.
Standing in his City Hall office, he points to a map of capital improvements, littered with red dots marking the projects. “That’s last year’s,” he tells MassLive. “I’ve got a new one coming up.”
But city officials have been “calculating” about what they approve – ranging from a new school, a senior center and a new fire station – so they don’t run into debt problems, he says.
“It’s been a good ride,” Vigeant says. “It really has, and we want to keep it going.”
This article by Gintautas Dumcius originally appeared here.