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After ‘severe deterioration,’ a historic Hopedale factory will face the wrecking ball, owner says

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A woman walks past Draper Corp. factory in Hopedale on July 29, 2018.
A woman walks past Draper Corp. factory in Hopedale on July 29, 2018. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The former Draper Corp. factory in the heart of Hopedale, which once churned out textile machinery used the world over, will be completely demolished next year, the owner of the complex says.

A potential re-use of the sprawling, once 1.8-million square foot building has been long imagined since workers last walked through its doors four decades ago. But the reality that the brick-and-mortar industrial shell cannot have a second life set in as crews completed asbestos abatement and demolished a large portion of the structure this fall amid efforts to reinvigorate the 77-acre property for potential redevelopment.

“We determined that as much as we would have liked to save it and look for a repurposing option, the severe deterioration and safety concerns were more than we were comfortable with, and we felt that the liability was greater than any potential benefit,” owner Philip Shwachman, principal of Hopedale Properties and CEO and founder of Worcester-based First American Realty Inc., told town selectmen Monday night.

Abatement of a 250,000 square-foot wing of the building started in August and has been completed, according to Shwachman, who has owned the factory since the 1990s. Workers are in the final stretch of demolition for that portion.

Shwachman estimated additional abatement for the remaining facilities will take between three and four months to carry out, with the final demolition finished by the end of June.

“It’s possible that there may be delays, but we hope to expedite it and so far things have been moving along very smoothly,” Shwachman said.

Shwachman has engaged the Worcester Business Development Corp. to develop a master plan for the site, in tandem with a process for a town-wide master plan that will incorporate future possibilities for the property.

Craig Blais, president and CEO of the WBDC, said during Monday’s virtual meeting the nonprofit repeatedly brought private developers to the complex, who told the team the factory was just too large and in need of too much work to make reuse projects feasible.

Demolition, he said, is not something the WBDC takes lightly.

“Obviously [there’s] great history with the Draper complex in Hopedale,” Blais said. “We know that many, many residents worked there, have connections to that history.”

The small town on the eastern edge of Worcester County indeed owes much of its history to the massive factory that overlooks its downtown.

Generations made a living at the Draper Corp. (among them at one time a young Joe Perry, the lead guitarist of Aerosmith), from the mid-1800s when brothers Ebenezer and George Draper brought the business to Hopedale until the factory shuttered in 1980.

Nestled in the pioneering industrial Blackstone Valley, the loom manufacturer also built Hopedale’s historic duplexes to house its workforce at affordable prices for families. Much of the early 20th century subdivisions are still standing.

Blais said the WBDC hopes to find a way to illuminate the factory’s history in whatever comes next for the property.

“That would have been nice, if we could have kept, you know, a piece of it,” Selectmen Louis Arcudi III said of the building.

“I thank you for at least allowing the residents of Hopedale and their family members to have a piece of that mill still somehow be part of your theme when you’re building it out,” he told Blais.

With the pillar of local economic growth long dormant, town officials have continuously sought options to spur activity again at the site, especially in a community where commercial property is lacking.

Shwachman and local officials put together a reuse plan in 2007, which spelled out the potential for a mixed-use development with homes, stores, and offices. But the vision gathered dust, especially in the throes of the Great Recession.

In 2018, selectmen presented a nearly $50 million Urban Renewal Plan for another mixed-use development on the property — with 565 housing units and 175,000 square feet of commercial space — and considered seizing the property by eminent domain. Shwachman filed a lawsuit in response and reached settlements with the town and other defendants last year.

With the site’s master plan initiative underway, Blais said uses for the site are relatively limited, given the town’s distance from Interstate-495 and Route 146.

“We do not want to fool anyone or sugarcoat the process by saying some big, large employer is going to show up in Hopedale,” he said.

But Shwachman and Blais are optimistic about what’s ahead.

Some early themes arising in the planning process include the potential for flexible, light industrial use and housing “in many different forms,” Blais said.

A press release from Shwachman’s First American Realty said initial findings from the WBDC’s market study indicate a possible future with multi-family and senior housing, open space, and/or retail.

The Mill River, which flows under the factory from the adjacent Hopedale Pond, could be key in attracting developers, Blais said.

The team plans to tap on some prospective re-developers to provide input as the planning process plays out, according to Blais.

“We heard loud and clear from the town — I sat in on … some of the eminent domain hearings and listened intently to the debate — and clearly heard the frustration of the many cycles that have been missed of the economy over the last 30, 40 years and having to live with the vacant mill being there,” he said. “I fully understand the frustration … It’s critical for the long-term success of the community that activity happen there.”

The Draper Corp. factory in Hopedale, as seen in July 2018. —Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff