While it has drawn a wide array of opinions over the past few years, one fact cannot be disputed: Cornerstone Square is here, and it has had an impact on life in Westford.
However, with just a few weeks since its stores began to open for business, the question still remains on what long term impact it might have on businesses in the immediate area and throughout Westford as a whole.
Despite the years of work and argument among residents over what that impact might be, according to American Commercial leasing agent Dusty Burke, Cornerstone was able to lease 92 percent of its non-medical storefronts prior to any stores actually opening, compared to 50 to 70 percent he normally sees at other shopping center openings elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
Burke believes this comes from the plaza’s aim to become a magnet for local and regional shoppers looking to head to several stores that act in a complimentary fashion, something that is needed to help continue growth among workers that commute to Westford in more prestigious industries.
“This type of center is required to keep them going, but is also required to keep them and other businesses coming here and it brings customers, employees and employers from across the region coming to Westford due to its quality of service and ease of access,” he said. “The more people that are coming in from throughout the region, the more people will be coming from throughout the area.”
However, Burke believes that a traffic tipping point where congestion from too many people coming here will stunt local business is unlikely due to traffic improvements mandated along Minot’s Corner and 495 as part of approval for the project by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Westford Planning Board.
“Without good planning and good access, you can put a shopping center in and have a disaster. On the contrary, this has been exceptionally well planned and has extraordinary access,” said Burke. “The improvements coming in will be exceptional. Eventually the traffic will be not worse, but better, and that’s the irony.”
For longtime business owners like Westford Package’s Robert Bursey, those arguments ring hollow.
Since its opening, he’s noted that it’s taken 15 minutes during morning rush hours to get from McKay’s Hardware to his store at Westford Plaza, and that eventually the traffic will push back traffic all the way to the Ninety Nine Restaurant.
In addition to the traffic, Bursey also fears that the plaza is bringing a glut of comparable businesses already in the area, having fought another liquor store coming in during last year’s Fall Town Meeting and subsequently when Cornerstone developer Robert Walker purchased the license for Parent’s Market for a store at the plaza.
“You’ll have two Market Baskets, three pet stores, 14 restaurants, two eyeglass places, three nail salons, four hair salons…you can’t say it’s not going to affect some of the longstanding businesses in the community,” said Bursey. “Traffic improvements (from the project) will not help anything, because you’re bringing in low level stores. You’ll only get people as far away as Lowell and Ayer shopping in this vicinity because it’s closer than New Hampshire. You won’t get Westford residents.”
Between Bursey and Baker on the spectrum is Paul Doty of Paul’s Diner.
For Paul, the plaza is a matter of some concern, but also a wait and see attitude.
“If the traffic flow comes in and everything comes together, but if it doesn’t motorists will say to themselves ‘what am I doing here, I can’t get where I’m going’ and they won’t come down 110 because of bottlenecks,” said Doty. “I want to be positive about the situation. Many people have asked me ‘what are you going to do, Paul?’ and I tell them I’m not going to do anything, I’m going to come into work every day and do the best I can to keep people coming into Paul’s Diner.”