New $10M redevelopment adds to Fitchburg's mill culture

BY Grant Welker

Photo | Grant Welker
Photo | Grant Welker
Matt Fournier, the president of Elite Construction and Design, and Francesco Colangelo, the owner of the former Sanitoy Mill off River Street in Fitchburg

For decades, mills on both sides of the Nashua River west of downtown Fitchburg sat mostly decrepit as shells of their former manufacturing glory.

Last year, a mill on the north bank of the river, where yarn was once made during the city's industrial heyday, was transformed into 96 housing units.

Now, it's the other mill's turn. Crews have been working since late last fall on the former Sanitoy Mill on the river's south side to turn a long-underutilized building into new offices and industrial space.

By August, the mill will house a range of government offices in addition to what is already an expanded space for its existing tenant, FoamTech Corp., a maker of packaging material. Of the building's roughly 100,000 square feet, about 80 percent is already leased.

“This shows there's a demand where people didn't think there was,” said Matt Fournier, the president of Elite Construction and Design, the Fitchburg firm building the project. “There's a want and a need and a desire to live, work and play in Fitchburg.”

The city's growing number of mill renovations in the past decade will allow residents to live in one revitalized mill and work in another just down the street, all clustered west of downtown.

“What is exciting is to see the movement afoot, particularly on that River Street corridor,” said Mary Jo Bohart, Fitchburg's economic development director.

Anwelt Heritage Apartments, a senior-living development off River Street and Oak Hill Road, opened in 2008 in a former shoemaking mill of the same name. Riverside Commons, a 187-unit development at 245 River St., opened in 2013 at the former Orswell Mills. Just last summer, Yarn Works opened at a mill at 1428 Main St.

Others still await a ideal modern use.

One mill, at 35 Daniels St., was the longtime home of Independent Lock Co. and later housed Seaboard Folding Box Co. But that company left for Westminster in 2016. The site is now used for storage by Wachusett Brewing.

Another mill complex, adjacent to the Sanitoy Mill off River Street, is tentatively under sale agreement.

Mary Anne Taylor, a broker for the former Iver Johnson Gun and Cycle Works, said interest increased as investment went into nearby properties.

“In addition to the one we've accepted an offer on, there have been other bidders,” Taylor said. “Developers are getting more confident that projects are going to do well in this economy.”

Redevelopment of the Sanitoy Mill, named for a plastic toy company once based there, has been in the making for the better part of two decades. The plan was first for residential use, and the Fitchburg Planning Board gave its first approvals in 2001.

The vision later switched to office and light industrial use.

Last year, site owner Francesco Colangelo decided to move ahead on the nearly $10-million project. The site posed a challenge, with too little parking or open space. So a four-story, 50,000-square-foot middle portion of the building was knocked down in order to make the rest of it feasible for reuse.

The remaining portions have been spruced up inside and out. Land along the Nashua River is being opened up for passive use that wouldn't have been possible during the site's industrial period.

“This was not an easy project,” Colangelo said during a tour of the site.

The Sanitoy Mill will host the Montachusett Opportunity Council and the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance and other state offices, which are now scattered elsewhere in Fitchburg.

The city has high hopes for the River Street corridor, which was repaved with bike lanes and new sidewalks and lighting thanks to a $3-million state grant.

Bohart said mill renovations have spurred a broader look at properties in that stretch of the city.

“People thought, 'Wow, maybe I should invest in my building,'” she said. “The momentum has really started to move in the right direction.”

Opportunities exist in the neighborhood for new construction, too.

Across from the old Iver Johnson mills, a site stands vacant where the Valley West Shopping Center was destroyed in a fire in 2015. The 2.6-acre site, once home to Beemers Pub and others, is now listed for sale for $1.25 million.

<script id="asp-embed-script" data-zindex="1000000" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8" src=""></script><a class="asp-embed-link" href="" target="_blank"><img src="" alt="Fitchburg mills" style="width:100%" border="0" /></a>