Where businesses thrive
Business View Magazine interviews representatives of Dracut, Massachusetts, for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Towns & Cities
Over the past year, Dracut, Massachusetts has been focused on bringing in more business. The town of 33,000, located less than 30 miles outside of Boston, has hired a new Economic Development Planner and has made a push to attract, diversify, and bolster its local businesses.
“Many towns around us are doing the same thing,” says Dan Phelps, who was hired for the planner’s role in August 2021. “They’re realizing that they need someone to be just focused on businesses and economic development. So Dracut is right in there and we’re pushing to find the best businesses available for the spaces that we have.”
Phelps has been impressed with what he has seen so far from the progressive New England town, which is part of Middlesex County. He shares, “I’m getting to know the town and the diverse array of businesses that it provides. The amount of businesses that continue to open and thrive in Dracut is really, really impressive, and it was impressive before I came along. I’m trying to add to that and find businesses that are a good fit for Dracut.”
The first priority is focusing on reworking the town’s current zoning. Dracut is currently going through a complete rezoning process with an ultimate goal of increasing the overall size of the industrial zone and adding more mixed-use zones to the area as well. “We do have a pretty good industrial sector of businesses and we’re looking to improve that and expand it,” Phelps says, “and mixed-use has become a big thing, so we are trying to increase areas where we can have retail with housing in the same building or the same complex.”
Part of the rezoning has included adapting former mill buildings to be used for retail and office use. One of the old mill buildings, which was originally built in the 1800s, was recently repurposed into a cannabis growing facility. “It’s a great use for it,” Phelps says. “They’ve done really amazing things to the inside and have plans to beautify the outside of the building, too. It’s right along Beaver Brook, which is a really picturesque brook that runs through town.”
One of the major business sectors Dracut is hoping to attract is more entertainment. The town is currently in talks with a developer who wants to build an indoor recreation facility that would include batting cages, tennis courts, pickleball courts, and a soccer pitch. Designs are in the works for a 23-acre parcel of land that will be centrally located for access from most of the town’s neighbourhoods.
“Entertainment to me is a key at this point for Dracut,” says Ann Vandal, Dracut’s Town Manager. “With COVID and the advent of remote working, I think it’s lent itself to opportunities for the community to build off of and to offer certain businesses for those customers. More people are staying home and they want to go to the theater or they want to go to a coffee house or something like that to get out of the house. I think that is a key component to our success going forward, along with other entertainment areas.”
Those other entertainment areas include teen and child-focused options. Plans are currently in place to expand the library’s teen space, and the town is working with developers to come up with a plan for a gaming facility. Vandal emphasizes, “We want to keep the kids here. We want a place for the kids to call home when they don’t want to be home, and hopefully keep them out of trouble. We are starting with the library to see what the response is, and then we will build from there.”
Another project Phelps has on the go is establishing a comprehensive business directory that residents can access whenever they’re in need of a business or service. With new businesses opening all the time, and many operating out of their homes since the pandemic, it’s not always easy to know what resources are available in town. “I want to include all of the businesses in town. So that when someone’s on Facebook saying ‘hey, does anybody know of a good housecleaner?’ we can just add a link to the directory on there as a resource,” he says.
The directory will allow for businesses to have equal opportunity to shine, with no one business getting an unfair advantage. “The one thing I don’t want to do is tell someone to try this plumber when there’s probably 35 plumbers in Dracut,” Phelps says. “That’s why I want to have a complete and comprehensive list of places. Here are the plumbers, here are their phone numbers, here is their website and you do your plumber shopping that way. So if I can provide a list of each different industry in town and let people go from there, that’s my goal.”
So far, the town’s businesses are thriving, with new businesses opening all the time. “I was talking to someone from another town’s economic development committee about some of the businesses that have been opening in Dracut and she was surprised that so many businesses are opening and that they are small businesses,” Phelps recounts. “But any business is a business and we’ve had several restaurants opening, we’ve had an art studio that just opened recently. We have our fourth and final cannabis retail store that just opened. We had a clothing boutique open a few months ago, a couple of nutritional drink companies opened, and a hot sauce manufacturing company.”
The Town of Dracut has eased the way for local businesses to find success by implementing bylaws that would allow businesses to operate inside residential homes, as long as they have no exterior detriment to the neighborhood. They’ve also used Phelps to attract new business to the area. “Dan came on board and he really hit the ground running with relationship building and reaching out to different places and saying ‘hey, do you want to come to Dracut? Here’s what we can offer you,” says Alison Genest, Chairman of the Dracut Board of Selectmen.
The residents themselves have made a big impact, as well. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while most towns had businesses shutting down, Dracut was opening them up. “We had businesses coming in and starting to thrive in a pandemic, which is really against the norm when you think about it,” Genest says. “The whole community just rallied together. We came together with this big marketing effort to do everything we could to sustain all the businesses that we already had. People were posting on Facebook telling everyone to shop local.”
The Town of Dracut is hoping to carry its success into the future, with the ultimate goal of filling any empty retail or commercial space that’s left available. Since Dracut isn’t situated near any major highway, the town has its sights set on smaller chain operations like Starbucks and KFC and unique one-off shops, rather than larger big box stores like Target or Walmart that prefer highway access. “There are not many empty storefronts in town, but my goal is to have them all filled,” Phelps says. “I want to fill all the mom-and-pop storefronts in town and try to find a place for all the businesses that do want to open. These are the things I’m looking forward to bringing into town.”
And while it would be exciting for the town to bring in some big name chains, keeping the town’s natural small-town charm is still a top priority. Phelps shares, “A lot of feedback that I get is that folks want to see some type of chain restaurant come into town, whether it’s a Chili’s or something like that – and I would love to see that happen – but at the same time, I want to make sure that we always keep the balance of the great right-to-farm community that Dracut has always been. That’s what draws people to want to live in Dracut to begin with. We have this wonderful community with all these open, rolling fields and farms. People like to see that when they’re driving to work every day. They want to drive by and have our small community that we have. So I want to do everything and keep that mix going.”
Click The Cover To View Or Download The Brochure
AT A GLANCE
What: A charming, progressive New England town; population approx. 33,000
Where: Middlesex County, Massachusetts
Greater Lowell Technical High School – www.gltech.org
Greater Lowell Technical High School nurtures and builds upon the unique strengths of young adults to help them exceed their greatest expectations. Whether it’s college or career, GLTHS prepares students to excel as global citizens.