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Worcester advised to toot its horn; Consultant: City victim of misperceptions.

Byline: Lisa Eckelbecker

WORCESTER - Worcester possesses qualities that can make it attractive for business, but it faces some perceptions that are less than attractive, according to a consultant who helps companies decide where to locate.

Housing costs, big-city amenities, small-town connectedness, a manufacturing infrastructure, health care institutions and colleges are among the advantages Worcester offers, said Christopher Steele, president of CWS Consulting Group LLC of Newton. Yet outsiders also perceive that Massachusetts has a less favorable business climate than other states and that Worcester is not as vibrant as it is, he said.

"There is a perception that this is an older industrial town," said Mr. Steele, one of three speakers today at a Research Bureau forum on Worcester's business climate at Clark University.

Perceptions also may lead to underestimating the scope of development under way in Worcester, according to Timothy J. McGourthy, the city's director of economic development. More than $1 billion in privately financed development is progressing.

Downtown, six buildings have been extensively renovated recently and four more projects continue, Mr. McGourthy said.

"Is Worcester hot? Yes. It's very hot. It's hot to the touch," Mr. McGourthy said. "You just have to look down and see what's going on."

Unum Group, a disability insurer based in Chattanooga, Tenn., chose to relocate its Worcester offices within the city rather than move to a suburban location where workers would be confined until they drive home, said J. Christopher Collins, Unum senior vice president and general counsel. Unum has signed a letter of intent to move to a building that would be built at the downtown CitySquare project.

"The reality is we'd be working in the suburbs, and I have to say it's nowhere as dynamic a place to work," Mr. Collins said.

Some of the negative business perceptions of Massachusetts are inaccurate, Mr. Steele said. Massachusetts ranks 34th among the 50 states for its overall tax exposure, with New Jersey at the top of the list with the most negative tax climate, he said.

Yet Massachusetts winds up being perceived as one of the three worst states for business climate, along with New Jersey and California, he said. The city's split property tax rate - a higher rate for businesses than homes - is a factor, as is the state's traditionally disjointed economic development activities, he said. Worcester, he said, could use more proselytizing on its behalf.

"There is a lot of outreach that needs to happen," he said.
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Title Annotation:MONEY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 12, 2009
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