By Ken MacLeod

WORCESTER (CBS) – It’s time to play ball in Worcester, as the WooSox play Syracuse on their new home field for the first time Tuesday afternoon. First pitch for the first opening day in club history is at 3:05 p.m.

But for the state’s second largest city, the WooSox are more than just the Red Sox AAA team.

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Local business owners hope Polar Park will be a field of dreams that will both help them bounce back from COVID and put them on solid footing for years to come.

As a life-sized bobblehead was fork-lifted into its spot overlooking the freshly mowed field, Bill Lauden was in his little leather shop across the street, cranking out belts he hopes will be a hit with fans.

Polar Park in Worcester (WBZ-TV)

“The potential for this area is incredible,” Lauden told WBZ-TV as he barely looked up from his work.

Just down Green Street, Richard Romaine and his son were setting up picnic tables outside Smokestack Urban Barbeque, preparing for a swarm of hungry fans.

“I’ll be honest,” he said. “I’m just impressed they got the park open on time. I thought it was a long shot but they did it.”

Indeed, the WooSox will play their historic first home game Tuesday, after Worcester lured the team away from Pawtucket, Rhode Island and helped foot the bill for a $160 million ballpark in the city’s crumbling canal district, hopefully bringing new life to a downtrodden neighborhood.

Polar Park in Worcester (WBZ-TV)

“I think it’ll help put Worcester back on the map,” said Ethan Gilbert of the Green Zone Smoke Shop. “It’s really cool that its within earshot. You can actually hear the announcers from inside the store sometimes.”

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But the crack of the bat and the customers it brings is only the start here.

The building of Polar Park has spawned $200 million in private investment around the stadium — commercial and residential. Some, like the new marketplace, are already up and running. Some have yet to break ground.

“And what we’re seeing,” said Worcester’s Chief Development Officer Peter Dunn, “is other investors and other projects, that want to be near that energy and that vitality.”

“But,” said restaurant owner Romaine, “the ballpark was kind of the nucleus that brought it all together.”

The pandemic delayed construction on the ballpark for several weeks, so last-minute work is everywhere, with crews still furiously painting the WooSox logo on the front of it Monday night.

But construction around the stadium will go on for years, as business-minds figure out how best to profit from their new neighbor.

“I don’t know the full extent of the plan,” said leather-smith Laudon, “but I know they’re going to keep going and going. And why not? Why not? We can use it here in Worcester.”

Still, as locals welcome the WooSox, many say there’s more to it than dollars. It’s also a nice renovation of civic pride.

“It’s a big deal,” Laudon said. “It’s a really big deal.”

The current shortage of parking is something that concerns many folks here.

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But that probably won’t get a stress test on Tuesday afternoon, when capacity limits will keep the crowd at roughly 2,400. Come August 1, the hope is that all 9,508 seats will be filled and they’ll all want to spend some time in the neighborhood, before and after the game.

Ken MacLeod