Mass Innovations, From the Beacon, February 2012

MMA Innovation Award winner, 2012

A long-running effort to revive the historic “Comb and Carriage District” in Leominster is nearing completion, thanks in part to the city’s deployment of state and federal grants.

The district, whose name recognizes the manufacture of plastic combs that reached its zenith in the first two decades of the twentieth century, has been the focus of revitalization efforts for the better part of two decades.

Mayor Dean Mazzarella, who has been in office since 1994, recalled a time in the early 1990s when the historic district, just east of downtown, “was really starting to decay. … The drug activity and the crime was forcing all the good people out.”

That began to change thanks to what Mazzarella described as a more vigilant police presence and the offering of tax incentives for investment. By the late ’90s, a “Distressed Properties Committee” was identifying properties that were beyond saving, opening the way for new housing and open space.

The Comb and Carriage District, according to Mazzarella, continued to improve along with the economy, as small manufacturing operations and other businesses existed among approximately 5,000 residents.

But with the advent of the deep national recession that took hold in 2008, foreclosure rates in the district rose sharply, as did unemployment and what Mazzarella describes as a lack of investment among landlords.

The city obtained a state Gateway Plus Action grant to pay for a master plan of the 36-block district. The master plan made the city eligible for an $855,200 state grant to replace streets, sidewalks, sewers and other infrastructure.

A federal Community Development Block Grant of $137,000, received in late 2010, paid for resurfacing and infrastructure work related to Whitney Street, a key corridor in the district. That work, according to Wendy Wiiks, the city’s grants administrator, led to the approval of a project to convert the Hartman building, a former factory and warehouse, to 40 units of affordable housing.

New sidewalks along Mechanic Street will help connect the Comb and Carriage District with the city’s downtown.

“We’re really getting into the guts of the actual rehabbing project,” Wiiks said. “People really want to invest in it now.”

For more information, contact Mayor Mazzarella at (978) 534-7500.

The winners of the annual Kenneth Pickard Municipal Innovation Awards were recognized at the MMA Annual Meeting on Jan. 21.