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How to Bring Back Southbridge

Southbridge, Mass., is one of dozens of New England mill towns that have fallen on hard times. These places were once prosperous, with traditional development built around walkable downtowns and streetcars. But today, the factories have closed and the downtowns are empty, thanks to economic collapse, antiquated zoning laws, and an automobile-centric transportation policy.

In many ways, Southbridge is typical of these towns. Its American Optical Company was once the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world; now, the town’s structures are falling apart and few businesses are left. But in Southbridge, whose population numbers about 16,000, one native son is working to revive his hometown one building at a time.

A boyish, bespectacled 21-year-old, Hunter Foote entered the world of real-estate development as soon as he graduated college at the age of 17. Foote studied business at UMass-Amherst and found he was different from his classmates, who typically looked at a business career as a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “I looked at business as creating value,” he says. “By creating value, the business is rewarded with profit. Profit is the method, not the goal.”

That outlook informs his work today. While many city governments seek huge government or corporate investments to come to their splashy rescue, Foote is an incremental entrepreneur. His company, Bellus Real Estate, works by buying distressed properties and renovating them. This style of small-scale development has low barriers to entry, is less disruptive to neighborhoods, and can produce a decent profit margin without ultra-luxury apartments or chain restaurants.

It also puts into practice many of the ideals of New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to recover the traditional patterns of urban development that prevailed before World War II. This time-tested model is characterized by walkable communities and buildings with storefronts and street-level windows and doors. The contrast is especially striking with the nearly windowless concrete bunkers and shopping malls built in the middle of the last century.

Since starting in 2012—he had to delay closing on his first property until he turned 18—Foote has built up a portfolio of 60 properties. “What’s really remarkable is that he did this with no money,” says Ted Carman, a developer and consultant with Boston-based Concord Square Planning and Development.

When Foote started out, banks basically wouldn’t talk to him. They didn’t like lending money for real estate in an area like Southbridge, and they certainly didn’t like lending money to a 17-year-old. As a result, he had to raise money from other sources, such as his family and private investors. He initially asked 117 contacts before he found one willing to take the risk.

Foote then used historic-preservation grants and tax credits to help him get started, and as he’s built up a track record he’s been able to get money from local banks. Now he’s looking into crowdfunding for real estate, which was legalized recently, and he’s taken advantage of tax credits and grants to install solar arrays on the roofs of some of his buildings. “It doesn’t take a lot of money, it takes creativity,” Foote says. “We kept piggy-backing on our previous projects.”

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His work benefits the whole town. Foote says there had been dozens of crimes, including assaults and even a murder, at three of the buildings he chose to renovate. In just those three buildings, his company has added $2.2 million in value, he says, worth about $40,000 in annual tax revenue to the town. Outside of downtown, the properties he purchased were all delinquent in taxes or water bills. He also hires local contractors to handle the renovations. “Interest rates are low, property values are low,” he says. “We saw an opportunity to buy cheap properties with cheap money and hire cheap people to renovate them.”

In keeping with New Urbanism, Foote also aims to reduce Southbridge’s reliance on automobiles. “It really appeals to have a walkable downtown,” he told a fall meeting of the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU-NE). “It reduces the need for anyone to have a car.”

Walkable development is much healthier for a city than the auto-oriented alternatives, according to Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, an organization that advocates traditional development. Marohn wrote for TAC last year that “on a per-foot or per-acre basis, [traditional development] is vastly more productive financially than anything being built in an auto-orientation.”

Marohn compares a city to an ecosystem. “Any time you look at a natural system, it benefits from small iterations,” he says. “You get systems that are far more optimized than if you take big leaps all at once. Traditional development is to suburban development as the Amazon rain forest is to a corn field.”

Many places in New England have still not learned that lesson, and continue to chase big-dollar projects. After Massachusetts passed a law legalizing casinos a few years ago, an $800 million gambling project was planned on 15 acres in Springfield, while a $1.7 billion project was planned for Everett’s waterfront. Even Boston isn’t immune to pie-in-the-sky projects, as its aborted attempt to host the 2024 Summer Olympics revealed.

Not only do casino projects and heavily subsidized corporate chases fail to rescue declining cities, but they can stoke backlash against development in general.  The result is that the well-financed and well-connected developers still get to do their large projects, but the less influential developers get stiffed.

Foote has faced his own challenges in Southbridge, such as preservationists who try to insist that he get “Certificates of Historical Accuracy” for his renovations, a process that can significantly increase costs. The building inspectors he’s worked with, on the other hand, would prefer he burn the buildings down. Marohn says inspectors around the country need to understand how to apply building codes to renovated buildings instead of expecting them to conform to new codes.

Neighbors have also been an issue. When Foote was renovating one downtown building for apartments, some people wanted him to make the apartments too big for transients but too small for families. The redevelopment of a former Raytheon site in the Boston suburb of Sudbury faced a similarly motivated challenge, as town officials demanded that most units built on the 50-acre property be restricted to people 55 and up to avoid increasing the school-age population.

One of the aims of CNU-NE is to encourage more people to become developers and build toward New Urbanism’s vision rather than succumbing to these pressures. “We need to chart a vision of development that speaks to … democratizing control of change in cities by reducing the amount of capital or power you have to have to make an individual or small group contribution,” say Seth Zeren, a member of CNU-NE’s board of directors and an urban-planner-turned-developer himself. “Essentially, it’s an argument for the petit bourgeois—small landlords, shopkeepers, etc. The bigger the buildings get, the fewer capitalists you’ll have; the bigger the experiments you make, the greater the returns at the top. There are plenty of examples from older urban contexts that you can have dynamic, dense, and economically prosperous cities with a majority of the city built of fine-grained urban buildings.”

Too many cities have become trapped by once-bitten, twice-shy neighbors and a failed philosophy of auto-centric urbanism. Small developers, whether real-estate entrepreneurs like Foote or Zeren’s petit bourgeois looking to get the most value from their assets, can be that needed force for local renewal.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "How to Bring Back Southbridge"

#1 Comment By SteveM On May 9, 2016 @ 8:22 am

No offense, but it appears that Foote built his business on tax breaks and subsidies.

Moreover re: “We saw an opportunity to buy cheap properties with cheap money and hire cheap people to renovate them.

Which is code for (illegal) immigrant labor. So “New Urbanism” is predicated on not paying a living wage to American citizen workers to actually do the work?

If that is true, how exactly is Foote’s business model different from the Cronies that build the casinos?

#2 Comment By George C On May 9, 2016 @ 11:01 am

First, thank you very much for writing up and acknowledging the economic difficulties of towns such as Southbridge. There are many people in this community that are making a positive difference, and Southbridge is on the precipice of an economic revitalization.

However, to my knowledge, Hunter Foote has done little to nothing to improve economic conditions other than buying low cost multi-family housing and Main St buildings that are currently sitting mostly vacant. Aside from providing temporary work for “cheap labor” I can’t see much else that Mr. Foote is contributing to the town.

He was gifted a large state funded grant for a project that was already supposed to be completed, however the construction has not even begun.

That’s over a million dollars that should’ve been reinvested into the Southbridge downtown area, and instead that building along with others are sitting disheveled and mostly vacant. I implore you to come and check out the town of Southbridge and write on the developers and investors that ARE actually doing positive things for the town and boosting the economy.

#3 Comment By Chris On May 9, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

Would be nice to see the old American Optical turned into a college or satellite university. Harvard? MIT?

#4 Comment By Kevin Buxton On May 10, 2016 @ 8:37 pm

With the Town presently adopting a Blight Bylaw we seem to have a tug of war with planning and development Verses blight and demolition. With foreclosure and abandoned properties most from the 2008 and 9 real estate bust being numerous its important that care is taken in determining a properties impact to its neighborhood if it is preserved repurposed or removed.
It is said that Southbridge has an over abundant inventory of rental properties yet affordable and low income housing is still in demand. There are opportunities for some beautiful converted single to multi-family to be repurposed back to single for neighborhood improvement.
Both sides of these push and pull actions and reactions can have major impacts on neighborhoods in both a positive and negative result. Each property is unique and must be dealt with a best outcome decision by the neighborhood, Town, and developer in that order.

#5 Comment By peter in boston On May 11, 2016 @ 2:43 pm

Tough crowd! “Aside from providing temporary work for ‘cheap labor’ I can’t see much else that Mr. Foote is contributing to the town.” I don’t know about that. Turning vacant downtown properties into occupied stores and apartments seems like a good thing for the whole town. What Mr. Foote is doing is difficult, slow, and expensive work, but he is getting it done. We could use more like him all over New England.

#6 Comment By DesertDavey On May 12, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

Did anybody else notice this inconsistency?

1. “While many city governments seek huge government or corporate investments to come to their splashy rescue, Foote is an incremental entrepreneur.”

2. “Foote then used historic-preservation grants and tax credits to help him get started,”

Grants and tax credits? Hmmmm. Sounds like some of that “free stuff” you conservatives usually WHINE about.

Foote is an impressive young man, and a credit to his community. But NO, “he didn’t build that” himself. The taxpayers, through grants and tax incentives, helped a GREAT DEAL. That is the part that conservatives ALWAYS seem to forget … except when the government benefit in question is going to poor black people, at which time, it’s the only thing that conservative seem to be able to talk about!

Get it? No, I don’t suppose you do.

#7 Comment By George C On May 12, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

Most of those properties are still sitting vacant. Especially the downtown ones, despite being awarded tax payer money in the form of grants. Economy housing and cheap interior renovations for section 8 funded residents isn’t pulling any town in New England out of dire economic straits.

Being essentially a slumlord is a profitable business and good for Mr Foote for capitalizing on those endeavors. He isn’t the savior Southbridge needs, and his projects have done little to improve conditions. If you’re in fact “Peter in Boston” maybe youve just been fooled by the misrepresentations above.

#8 Comment By BillyM On May 12, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

The only thing Mr. Foote has added to Southbridge are two halfway houses on main street and a string of unexplained fires.

#9 Comment By Wally M. On May 15, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

While I agree that Mr. Foote has not solved the economic development and blight situation in Southbridge through his renovation efforts, it is my personal opinion that he has made an a creative and admirable effort in that direction. There are no clear solutions to Southbridge’s Economic Development problem, but instead of berating Mr. Foote’s innovative efforts, we should be uniting and cooperating with civic leaders in the Town of Southbridge to “Make Things Happen” here. For example, there are several Town Council Sub-committees that have openings for Civilian membership, and I don’t see the names of the Nay-Sayers stepping forward to fill these positions.
If Mr. Foote, at the young age of 21, has the determination to try something to energize our economic condition via a different venue, I commend his efforts. Whether I agree or disagree with his methods is not the point. The point is he is trying to do something to help our town. We all should look to roll up our sleeves and utilize our God given gifts, talents, and strengths for the good our Southbridge. Just standing around airing negative comments achieves nothing, but produces air pollution. Be positive and get involved positively.