Officials in many different communities like to say they’re ‘at the crossroads’ — of their region or even New England.
In Sturbridge … they mean it.
Indeed, this community of just under 10,000 people sits at the intersection of the Mass. Pike and I-84, which begins in the town and winds its way southwest through Hartford and into New York and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Route 20, a state highway, and the main east-west corridor before the Pike was built, runs through the town and forms its main commercial artery.
Most area cities and towns also like to say that they have ‘something for everyone.’
In Sturbridge … they mean it.
There are hotels, restaurants, and taverns, as well as campgrounds, hiking trails, and kayaking on the Quaboag River. There’s shopping and antiques (Brimfield is right next door, and there are many shops in Sturbridge itself). There are a few brewpubs, a distillery, and even axe throwing. There’s foliage (many tours of New England’s fall colors end here) and the famous shrine at St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish.
“If you were the Mass. association of anything, Sturbridge is ideal, because we’re dead center — it’s equidistant from the Berkshires to Hyannis. And it’s less expensive than Marlboro or going even closer to Boston.”
Between the accessibility and the all the things to do — and the two qualities are obviously very much related — there are always considerably more than 10,000 people in Sturbridge at any given time.
Some visitors get off those aforementioned roads on their way to somewhere else and often shop, eat, or both. But, more importantly for the town, the region, and the businesses within, many stay for a night or two … or three.
They come for business meetings and conventions; to look at foliage; to camp or park RVs at the two RV parks; to take in the three Brimfield Flea Markets in May, June, and September; for the annual Harvest Festival, staged earlier this month; and to converge for the Pan-Mass Challenge, the bike ride to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which features a route that starts in Sturbridge and winds 109 miles southeast to Bourne.
And they come for weddings.
Neither Town Administrator Robin Grimm nor Terry Masterson, the town’s Economic Development and Tourism coordinator, know exactly how many, but they know it’s a big number.
“Weddings are a cottage industry here,” said Grimm, noting that a combination of venues (such as the Publick House Historic Inn and Country Lodge and the Sturbridge Host Hotel & Conference Center), beauty, and position in the middle of the state (and the middle of New England, for that matter) make Sturbridge a popular wedding location.
Alexandra McNitt, director of the Chamber of Central Mass South for the past 17 years, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the community’s location, in the very middle of the state and on major highways, makes it a logical choice for meetings and conventions involving state associations, business groups, and families planning reunions and other types of get-togethers.
“If you were the Mass. association of anything, Sturbridge is ideal, because we’re dead center — it’s equidistant from the Berkshires to Hyannis,” she said. “And it’s less expensive than Marlboro or going even closer to Boston.
“And with families and friends getting together … I can’t tell you how many times we get people who call us and say, ‘I live in Maine, I have some friends coming up from New York or Pennsylvania, and they’re coming to Sturbridge because it’s halfway for both of them,’” she went on. “It happens all the time. So we benefit from this location on the personal level, with small-meeting groups and any kind of state clubs or associations.”
Overall, between the hotels, RV parks, Old Sturbridge Village, the Brimfield antique shows, and the weddings, events, and meetings, Sturbridge draws more than a half-million visitors a year.
And those who find the town will now be able to more easily find out about all there is to do there, and in the surrounding region, with the opening of a new home for the chamber, one that includes a visitors center on River Road, just off exit 5 of I-84 (more on that later).
Meanwhile, there is another potential new draw for this already-popular destination with the planned opening of a combination truck stop and what’s being called an ‘electric-vehicle discovery center,’ said Masterson, where motorists can learn about EV ownership and potentially test-drive vehicles from various manufacturers.
For this installment of its ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Sturbridge and how it takes full advantage of its accessibility, beauty, and increasingly diverse business community.
Grimm, formerly a town administrator in Stoughton, just south of Boston, and administrator or assistant administrator in several communities in Rhode Island, where she grew up, told BusinessWest that she wasn’t exactly looking for a job when Sturbridge posted for a town administrator early in 2022. But there were many things about the position that appealed to her, from its beauty to its sense of history to its enthusiastic celebration of that history.
“Sturbridge has always been a favorite community for me — there isn’t a kid in Rhode Island who doesn’t take a visit to Old Sturbridge Village,” she said. “I love rural communities, and when an opportunity to work in this part of Massachusetts came up, my ears perked up.
“Sturbridge is particularly unique,” she went on, “because it’s an unusual combination of the beautiful, rural, foothill feel that you get as you start moving west in Massachusetts, and what happens when you have the reality of the intersection of two major highways.”
Masterson, who came to Sturbridge in 2020, has a somewhat similar story. Formerly an Economic Development administrator in Northampton, he said he came to Sturbridge and a similar post there because of that same blend of history and business development. “I enjoy history, so the job posting piqued my interest, and I came and interviewed.”
Masterson said the importance of tourism, hospitality, meetings, and conventions to Sturbridge, and the manner in which all this dominates the local economy, becomes clear as he breaks down the tourism business base, which includes nearly 100 businesses of all sizes.
Indeed, there are 11 hotels located in the community, which together boast roughly 1,000 rooms, he said. There are 24 ‘eating establishments,’ three coffee and tea houses, six dessert or ice-cream shops, six brew pubs, five wineries, three orchards, three wedding venues, 17 specialty shops, four RV parks and campsites, five nature trails covering 35 miles, and two golf courses.
All this explains why Sturbridge, which boasts a rich history — Grimm says the Revolutionary War is still a big part of the town’s “culture” — has become such a destination.
Masterson noted that its popularity as a stop, for a few hours or a few days, is made clear in statistics regarding spending on meals; the town has been averaging $63 million annually since 2017, with a high of $72 million in 2022. By comparison, Northampton, a community well known for its stable of fine restaurants, averages $93 million annually.
The hotels have high occupancy rates in spring, summer, and fall, said McNitt, adding that they, and the restaurants, get a huge boost from the Brimfield antiques shows, the first of which, in May, is the unofficial start to the busy season. “That first May show is a huge shot in the arm for the hotels and restaurants; that kicks off the season, and then we’ll be flying until Thanksgiving.”
These numbers, and those regarding overall visitorship, obviously make Sturbridge a popular landing spot for tourism- and hospitality-related businesses, said Masterson, adding that there has been a steady stream of new arrivals in recent years, including several this year.
“Sturbridge is particularly unique, because it’s an unusual combination of the beautiful, rural, foothill feel that you get as you start moving west in Massachusetts, and what happens when you have the reality of the intersection of two major highways.”
They include everything from Wicked Licks, an ice-cream shop that opened on Route 20 near the entrance to Old Sturbridge Village; Tutt Quanti, an Italian restaurant; Heal and Local Roots, two cannabis dispensaries along Route 20; D’Errico’s, an upper-end meat purveyor taking space in the Local Roots facility; and Teddy G’s Pub & Grille, which is occupying the former Friendly’s location on Route 20.
In addition to its meeting, convention, and wedding business, Sturbridge and the surrounding area boasts a number of historical and cultural attractions, parks, orchards, trails, golf courses, and other forms of recreation.
Topping that impressive list, of course, is Old Sturbridge Village, one of the nation’s oldest and largest living-history museums, with 40 restored antique buildings, a working farm, two covered bridges, and much more. OSV draws 250,000 visitors a year and hosts hundreds of school field trips, as it has for decades.
There’s also Sturbridge Common, the picturesque town founded in the 1730s, which was, during the Revolutionary War, the site of militia drills and the collection of military supplies, as well as St. Anne Shrine, which has been welcoming pilgrims praying for physical and spiritual healing since 1888.
Sturbridge at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1738
Area: 39.0 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $18.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.07
Median Household Income: $56,519
Family Household Income: $64,455
Type of government: Town Administrator, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: OFS Optics, Old Sturbridge Village, Arland Tool & Manufacturing Inc., Sturbridge Host Hotel & Conference Center
* Latest information available
Perhaps less well-known, but increasingly popular — and important to the business community — are the trails, campgrounds, RV parks, and open spaces in Sturbridge.
“We have more than 450 RV pads, which I conservatively estimate will draw more than 100,000 people a year between April and October,” said Masterson, adding that the RV parks, as well as the trails and campgrounds, enabled Sturbridge to continue to draw large numbers of visitors during COVID.
The new chamber office and visitors’ center will help provide more information to those who come to Sturbridge for all those reasons listed above, said McNitt, adding that the town had such a facility years ago, saw it close, but recognized the need to resurrect it.
And many of the businesses and venues that it spotlights helped make this move possible, including the donation of a building for the facility.
“The community has really come together to support this initiative,” McNitt noted, adding that a painting-business owner has volunteered time and talent to paint the facility, while the Publick House donated landscaping, and other businesses have chipped in as well. “It’s definitely been a community effort; they wanted this to come back.”
As for the planned service center and EV discovery center now nearing the finish line, it is one of several such facilities being developed by partners Michael Frisbie and Abdul Tammo, co-owners of Hartford-based Noble Gas Inc. The two partners are building what they tout as a new generation of larger service centers, complete with high-speed electric-vehicle charging stations and a host of other amenities, including an ice-cream shop and outdoor picnic areas.
“If you have an electric vehicle, it’s not like filling your gas tank,” said McNitt, explaining the concept as she understands it. “It doesn’t happen in three minutes; even with a high-speed charger, it takes 20 to 30 minutes, so they’re trying to create an environment that’s friendly toward that.”
It’s just one more way Sturbridge is creating an environment friendly to all kinds of recreation seekers who arrive here at the crossroads.