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Watertown officials hopeful for redevelopment of the Woolworth building

Joanna Richards
Woolworth Building in Watertown

Watertown officials have been excited about the possibility of a redevelopment project for the Woolworth building downtown for several years.

The building was once the site of a dry goods store where F.W. Woolworth began his retail career. In 1921, after launching his five-and-dime empire, he bought the property, demolished the old building there and built the existing structure. But for years now, it's sat vacant. A new owner purchased the building several years ago and had plans to develop the site, but now city officials worry those plans may be in jeopardy. 

At the corner of Washington and Arsenal streets in Watertown's Public Square is the Woolworth building. It was once part of a bustling downtown economy here. Now, downtown has to compete with the commercial center in the strip malls lining Arsenal Street, and the Woolworth building is boarded-up and vacant.

Kenneth Mix is planning and community development coordinator for the city of Watertown. He says the Woolworth building could be part of the heart of downtown again.

"Well it's a significantly sized building in the downtown," said Mix. "It's located in an important location at the end of Public Square. And it's got quite a bit of history behind it, being associated with F.W. Woolworth and his whole five-and-dime empire. So there's a lot of history with the building, too."

Developer Michael Treanor owns the building. He originally planned to turn it into a hotel. In the fall of 2009, the city of Watertown was awarded a $2.5 million state grant to help fund the project.

Later, the grant was reduced to under $2 million when the developer couldn't secure financing for a hotel. The project was changed to apartments.

But now, city officials are worried that the grant could be lost, since there has been little activity on the project, more than two years after the grant was awarded.

Treanor did not return calls for comment, but Mix, the city planner, says he last heard from Treanor in November.

"He had proposals from an architect that he was looking at, to start doing some design work," said Mix. "He'd also indicated previous to that that he had his financing that he needed in place, because he wasn't able to get it for the hotel project, but he was able to find someone who would fund apartments. And that funding was based on a HUD program that guaranteed the loan. I don't know how far that's proceeded at this point."

Mix says apartments at the site would be a great boon to downtown Watertown.

"Well, more residential is always important to downtown, because people who live in the downtown areas spend money in the downtown areas and help support the businesses that are there, so anytime you can bring in more residents, it helps," he said. "I mean what drives downtowns now in terms of the commerce are workers, people who work in the downtown, and residents, and it's been shown in study after study that residents actually spend more money in the downtown area than employees do."

Next door to the Woolworth building, Robert Dalton works in his bar's newly added kitchen, slicing up fresh cheese for fondue. Dalton is owner of the Paddock Club, a popular night spot in the Paddock Arcade building. He says he was really hoping for the hotel project to come through.

"If it's a building maybe for the lower income or the handicapped, I doubt if, you know, I doubt if it will help my business at all," said Dalton. "I was really hoping for the hotel to come in and that was my big excitement, but I don't know if – I don't think that's gonna happen."

City officials, meanwhile, just hope that something will happen with the Woolworth building before the state decides to rescind its grant funding. They don't know when their time might run out.