Marcos Marrero says that if one were to have a machine running an optimization algorithm that would weigh a host of quantitative and qualitative factors to ultimately determine the very best spot in the region — and maybe the country — to locate a marijuana cultivation and distribution facility, it would, when done with its analysis, likely spit out two words: Holyoke and Massachusetts.
And that second word is necessary, he went on, because there is, in fact, a Holyoke in Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, and he’s already been asked more than a few times if he works for that small town of 5,000 people near the center of the Centennial State.
He doesn’t. He’s director of Planning and Economic Development for the other Holyoke, the one on the Connecticut River. The one heralded as one of the first planned industrial cities in the country. The one where Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries (TGI) is set to open an estimated $10 million marijuana-cultivation facility in former mill space on Appleton Street this spring.
And Marrero is fielding a lot of phone calls and e-mails these days from other people wanting to know more about that Holyoke, and marijuana cultivation is usually the reason (more on those inquiries later).
First, back to that algorithm. As noted, it would weigh a host of quantitative factors, said Marrero, and they all project strongly in Holyoke’s favor. These range from the roughly 1.5 million square feet of available, attractively priced mill space within the city, much of it ideal for marijuana cultivation because of the mills’ open spaces and high ceilings, to the lowest electricity rates in the state (this is a power-intensive business), to Holyoke’s location along I-91 and just off the Turnpike.
“You can ship it east, and you can ship it north,” said Marrero, adding quickly that there also qualitative factors to consider.
Or at least one big one, anyway. That would be the city’s welcoming attitude toward an industry that most communities in the Bay State are throwing stop signs and speed bumps in front of.
“Many cities and towns are taking out the pitchforks to prevent the cannabis industry from coming in,” said Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse. “Given my outspoken support for the industry, we’re seeing companies from across the country come into Holyoke to meet with us and my team about locations and learn more about our special-permit process. It’s been company after company that’s been looking to invest.”
But this cannabis phenomenon, if you will, is just part of the story. And it’s only one of the ways in which the city is succeeding with filling some its legendary and mostly idle or underused mills.
There are many others, starting with the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which opened in the Cubit building (anther of those old mills) in January. There are also the market-rate apartments in the floors above that facility, and a host of other housing initiatives as well.
There are also arts-related facilities, such as Gateway City Arts on Race Street. And then, there are a growing number of startups, mentored by groups like SPARK, that are also moving into those mills.
All this, or most all of it (the marijuana law was passed in 2016), was part of Morse’s vision when he became mayor in 2012, and also why he’s still mayor today, having been re-elected to a four-year term (the city’s first) last fall. Back when he first ran for office, he explained, he saw enormous potential for the city to become home to a wide array of businesses and to become an attractive residential address as well after decades when it clearly wasn’t.
The formula called for a host of public investments — they’ve come in many forms, from a new canal walk to a new train depot to a slew of road projects — that would in turn encourage private investments (such as the Cubit building and GTI, for example). There would also be a focus on building the cultural economy, encouraging entrepreneurship, and maximizing Holyoke’s many geographic and historical assets.
In short, it’s all coming together nicely, as we’ll see in this, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series.
When asked to put all that aforementioned interest in Holyoke on the part of cannabis enterprises, or would-be cannabis enterprises, into perspective, Marrero let out a deep breath.
“The last couple of weeks have been … crazy,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s been lots of meetings and phone calls. Some of them are companies that are just shopping around and don’t necessarily know everything about Holyoke, but they may be looking in the Western Mass. corridor. But they’ve heard about us and want to know more.”
And it’s been crazy for a reason, actually several of them, as noted at the top.
“We believe we have the best competitive advantages for the industry at this time,” Marrero explained, “from the real estate to the low-cost electricity — those lights are on a lot — to the water. Holyoke has a lot of offer these businesses.
“And in Mayor Morse, you have the first mayor to come out and quite vocally support legalizing marijuana, recreationally and medically, and that certainly makes a difference,” he went on, adding that the city had one of the first ordinances in the state regulating, but also, and in many ways, welcoming the industry.
“So there’s some political stability — there’s a willingness and a desire to have this industry here,” Marrero continued, adding that all this caught the attention of GTI, which is now permitted to operate a facility on 42,000 square feet of former mill space at 28 Appleton St.
The company plans to hire about 100 people within the next year, said Morse, adding that, while not all of these are skilled positions, per se, these will be attractive positions with wages averaging $15 or more.
“When GTI held its first job fair last fall, there were more than 700 people in the room,” he recalled. “And that sends a strong message to other elected leaders in this city and also the community that people are looking for jobs, they’re willing to get trained, and they want to work.”
Meanwhile, there are many other entities looking to join GTI, said Marrero, adding that there are at least six businesses expressing what he called “serious” interest and moving toward the permitting stage, and perhaps a dozen more that are kicking the tires and filling Marrero’s voice mailbox.
How many will eventually land in Holyoke obviously remains to be seen, but Marrero and Morse both believe the cannabis sector could soon employ hundreds in the Paper City and bring additional benefits as well in the form of supporting businesses that will also pay taxes and employ area residents.
“Once you have a clustering effect of any industry, you have a subsequent clustering effect of any industry that supports that sector, and that could benefit not only Holyoke but surrounding communities,” Marrero explained. “If we had 10 cannabis-growing companies, not only would that translate into a large amount of jobs, tax revenue, and more, but then those 10 companies are going to be demanding services from pipe fitters, electricians, those who maintain HVAC systems, transportation and logistics companies, security companies, etc.; you have a second tier of expertise that is developed in the economy to support them.”
This is what has happened in Colorado (he’s not sure about the community of Holyoke) and other states where marijuana has been legalized, he went on, adding that the Holyoke in Massachusetts has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made by others before it, and there have been some.
Run of the Mills
While the cannabis industry starts to fill in that section of the canvas that is a changing Holyoke, other businesses are finding the city as well, and the vision that Morse put in place at the start of this decade is coming into focus.
That vision involved embracing the city’s industrial past as a paper and textile hub, but also recognizing that this was in the past and that the community had to develop new sources of jobs and tax revenue while also revitalizing a downtown that had seen much better days.
The strategy for doing all that, as noted earlier, is multi-faceted.
“We’ve been pursuing an innovation-based economic-development strategy and coupling that with a public-investment strategy,” the mayor explained. “We’ve made a number of investments that have made the city a more attractive place for private investment and incentivising developers to come in; they’ve recognized that the city is making investments in itself to make it a more liveable, walkable community, especially in the downtown, and they’re responded to that.”
There’s been a housing strategy as part of that broader plan, he went on, adding that housing is obviously key to attracting businesses and the people who would work for them.
The goal is to create a dense, diverse inventory of housing, Morse went on, adding that the city is making strides in this regard with market-rate projects such as the Cubit building, mixed-use projects such such as a Wynn Development initiative at the former Farr Alpaca Mills on Appleton Street, and public housing efforts such as the ongoing, 167-unit Lyman Terrace project.
As for those public investments, they have come in many forms, including the canal walk and train station, but also a number of parks and neighborhoods. The effect has been to make the city a more attractive option for businesses, but also families, said the mayor.
“We’re not of the philosophy that one big corporate giant is going to arrive in Holyoke and solve all our problems — we have a much more long-term view of sustainable economic development,” he explained. “We’re focused on the innovation economy, but also entrepreneurship and small-business development, through initiatives such as SPARK.”
There have been more than 80 ‘graduates’ of that program of mentoring and education, run by the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, he went on, adding that some of them are either incubating in Holyoke or have already moved into their own space within the city.
Holyoke at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1786
Area: 22.8 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $19.17
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.72
Median Household Income: $36,608
Median Family Income: $41,194
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Community College, ISO New England Inc., PeoplesBank, Universal Plastics, Marox Corp.
* Latest information available
Meanwhile, there are other forms of progress to note across the city, said Morse, listing everything from a rising high-school graduation rate — it was under 50% when he took office, and now it’s closer to 70% — to falling unemployment; from planned revitalization of the former Lynch School just off I-91 (an RFP was recently issued) to needed evolution at the Holyoke Mall.
The mall is one of the city’s important assets, he noted, adding that it brings thousands of people into the city every day. With the retail sector struggling in the wake of emerging forces like Amazon, and malls fighting to keep their spaces filled, the facility in Holyoke is responding with family-oriented tenants that are keeping the parking lots crowded, said the mayor.
“We’ve seen the mall make a number of investments in recent years and add more entertainment options,” he explained. “These include new restaurants, an escape-room place, and a new Cinemark theater that will be coming in.”
As for the graduation rate and improvement at the public schools overall, this is an important ingredient in the overall strategy for Holyoke’s revitalization, said the mayor.
And with continued progress in mind, the city will launch a new high-school model this fall, one based on four different academies focused on career readiness to create more pathways for students.
As he talked about cannabis — and everything else going on in Holyoke — Morse joked that Holyoke might soon run out of mill space to offer developers.
When told about that line, Marrero laughed, paused for a second, and said simply, “I hope so — that would be great.”
That’s not likely to happen any time soon, if ever. But that number of available square feet in the mills that gave Holyoke its nickname and its heritage keeps going down.
And cannabis is just one of the reasons. Many of the same character traits that are attracting marijuana growers — from the mills to the highways to a business-friendly City Hall — are attracting other types of businesses as well.
As noted, Morse couldn’t exactly have foreseen the cannabis industry being one of his city’s leading employers when he took office. But he could foresee a time when his staff and the office of Planning and Economic Development would be flooded with calls from people interested in maybe setting up shop in Holyoke.
And not the one in Colorado.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]