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Feeling hopeful despite `plagues'; O'Brien sees opportunities.

Byline: Martin Luttrell

WORCESTER - He recalled last year's floods, Asian longhorned beetle infestation and a "biblical ice storm" leading up to the current financial crisis that has resulted in record foreclosures and the impending layoffs of hundreds of city workers. But City Manager Michael V. O'Brien told a local business group that he is optimistic and that the current economic climate can still provide "limitless opportunities."

"We've been through this before as a nation and as a city," he said. "I still see the glass as being half full."

He said negotiations that could lead to the first phase of construction at the $564 million CitySquare downtown project are ongoing, and that 75 new businesses opened in the city last year. When the housing foreclosure rate began to rise two years ago, the city established a property review team to make sure landlords were keeping up their properties, and the Buy Worcester Now program recruited lenders, real estate and legal professionals and city employers to promote - and give incentives to purchase - properties in foreclosure.

That program has resulted in the sale of 120 properties since its launch last summer, and has the potential to double by the end of the spring, he said.

The city also enjoys one of the lowest crime rates for cities in New England, he said.

Mr. O'Brien, speaking to about 50 members of the North Worcester Business Association during a luncheon program yesterday at Tweed's Pub and Restaurant on Grove Street, joked that four of the 10 biblical plagues have already been visited upon the city, and that he was wondering what would be next.

"If it wasn't for WBDC's fine work they'd be arresting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on I-290," he said, referring to Worcester Business Development Corp's work in attracting life sciences and other economic development to the city.

By taking action now, he hopes to lessen the effects of a shortfall of more than $30 million for the next fiscal year that threatens 600 municipal jobs. That number could be reduced to 400, but will still mean reduction and elimination of some municipal services, he said.

Mr. O'Brien said that the state will receive between $6 billion and $9 billion through the stimulus plan signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama. Much of that would pay for badly needed infrastructure improvements, including where the rebuilt Route 146 comes into the city at Quinsigamond Avenue, he said.

"It's too soon to tell what projects will go forward, what effect it will have on local aid," he told the audience. "It's still on the governor's budget table. We're still doing an analysis."
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 19, 2009
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