Holyoke’s Happiness Machine Marks a Milestone
The Holyoke Merry-Go-Round marks 20 years in operation at Heritage Park this December.
Thus, this is a time of reflection and celebration in Holyoke, concerning both the remarkable story of how residents and businesses in the city rallied to keep the attraction within the community, and the success enjoyed since: more than 1 million riders, hundreds of events staged at the facility, restoration of nearly half the ride’s hand-crafted wooden horses, and the creation of untold memories for generations of area residents.
There will be many opportunities to rejoice and look back this year, with the highlight being a huge fund-raising gala at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House on Sept. 19, an event that is expected to severely test the facility’s fire-code capacity.
But for those most closely involved with this landmark, known to them as PTC 80 (the 80th carousel built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co.), this is a time for much more than celebrating — although they will do plenty of that. It’s an occasion to do some strategic planning and take important steps that will ensure there are many more anniversaries to celebrate down the road.
And it’s a time, said Angela Wright, to do some difficult, yet very necessary, succession planning when it comes to management of what those in the city call the ‘happiness machine.’
“We’re reluctant to give up something that is close to all of us, and something that we worked so hard at — it’s been a labor of love for all of us,” she said, referring to a strong corps of volunteers that has been with this project from the beginning and seen some of their ranks pass away in recent years. “We don’t want to let go of this, but it’s something we know we have to do.”
Elaborating, she said the Friends of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, as this group is called, is engaging in discussions about hiring a full-time executive director for the facility, an individual who will assume many duties currently carried out by those volunteers, from fund-raising to marketing, while also taking on the primary assignment — maintaining the relationships that have enabled this city treasure to survive and thrive, and creating new ones.
Hiring a director is one of many suggestions forwarded during strategic planning sessions staged recently with a consultant, Jeff Hayden, former city development director and current director of the Kittredge Center, said Maureen Costello, administrative manager of PTC 80.
Others include everything from recruiting additional board members to developing and implementing a marketing plan; from multi-faceted efforts to increase visitation to a host of initiatives to increase revenues, especially the scheduling of more birthday parties and other events.
These steps are in various, but mostly early, stages of implementation, said Costello, noting that one important step — a doubling of the price of a ride to $2 after more than 18 years — was undertaken in 2012.
“That was a difficult decision for us, because we had prided ourselves on keeping the ticket price at a dollar since we opened in 1993,” she explaned. “But it’s been very well-received by our visitors; many people said, ‘it’s about time you did this.’”
There will be more difficult and far-reaching steps taken in the months and years to come, said Jim Jackowski, business liaison and customer service and credit manager for Holyoke Gas & Electric and current president of the Friends board. He noted that, while the attraction’s first two decades in operation could be deemed an unqualified success, these are tenuous times for independently operated carousels like this one.
The challenges are many, and include everything from the high cost of insurance (carousels have historically had high mishap rates, although this one hasn’t recorded any) to the escalating competition for the time of young children (the ride’s lifeblood) and their parents.
“There are just a lot more things for kids and families to do today,” said Jackowski. “We have to respond to that by promoting ourselves and doing what we’ve always done — providing a truly unique experience.”
Wright agreed. “Many carousels are closing — hardly a week goes that we don’t hear of one of them shutting down,” she said, noting that she and others read about such casualties in industry publications like the Carousel News & Trader and Merry-Go-Round Roundup. “These things are becoming very expensive … our liability insurance is extremely high. Between insurance, staffing, maintenance, upkeep, promotions, and marketing, they’re becoming simply too expensive for many operators to run.”
For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest takes a quick look back at how PTC 80 remained a Holyoke institution, but a more comprehensive glance ahead to the challenge of making sure the happiness machine will be there to create memories for future generations of area residents.
Turns for the Better
It has three rows of horses (there are 28 in all, both ‘standers’ and ‘jumpers,’ with two chariots), with the largest animals on the outside and the smallest on the inside. This particular specimen is fifth in a sequence known only to those intimately involved with this attraction. And it is showing some definite signs of wear and tear, much of it caused by the buckle on the stirrup, which has knocked off badly faded paint in several areas.
As a result, it is next in line for restoration work that will make it look like the much shinier and newer ‘middle horse #4’ just ahead. This work, to be carried out at the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Conn., will cost roughly $5,000, said Costello. To help pay that cost, the merry-go-round is staging a raffle this summer, with the winner gaining the right to give the horse a real name — like ‘Lancelot,’ ‘Flower Power,’ and others that have been assigned to other animals on PTC 80.
Restoring horses, staging raffles, and giving names to the stars of this attraction have been some of the many aspects of that labor of love which Wright described, made possible by the truly inspiring story of how Holyoke came together to keep its carousel a quarter-century ago.
Most in this region are now at least somewhat familiar with the saga, which began with Mountain Park owner Jay Collins’ decision to shut down the popular tourist attraction after the 1987 season ended.
After unsuccessful efforts to sell the park, the 300 acres it sat on, and all the equipment and inventory as one package (asking price: $4 million), Collins opted to start selling off the pieces. He had some attractive offers (up to $2 million, according to some accounts) for PTC 80, which was in extremely good condition. And while he was considering them, John Hickey, then manager of Holyoke’s Water Department, approached him with a plan to keep the carousel in the city.
The two agreed on a price of $875,000, and Collins gave Hickey one year to raise the money.
The rest, is, well, history.
An elaborate ‘save the merry-go-round’ campaign was launched, complete with a request for pledges with rhetorical calls to action that included ‘stop them from riding off with Holyoke’s mane attraction’ and ‘if you care about Holyoke’s future, put some money down on her past.’
In the end, residents, business owners, and schoolchildren heeded those calls, raising enough money to buy the carousel and build it a new home in Heritage State Park. Thus, PTC 80’s second life began in December 1993.
To say that it’s been a smooth ride since then would oversimplify things, said Wright, who noted that there have been many challenges over the first two decades, from getting people to come to downtown Holyoke to attracting revenue-generating events, such as birthday parties and weddings, to overcoming the loss several years ago of the four-day Celebrate Holyoke event that gave the carousel much-needed exposure and ridership.
“The real business challenge for us has been to replace the revenue from the Celebrate Holyoke festival, which was probably 10% to 15% of our annual revenue,” said Jackowski. “We’ve done it largely through the promotion of the birthday parties, the private functions, and the corporate functions, and spreading the word through an extended Pioneer Valley area.”
The attraction has managed to remain in the black throughout and meet its annual budget of roughly $100,000, he noted, largely through perseverance, imagination, and resourcefulness.
But if PTC 80, one of only 100 antique classic wooden merry-rounds still operating in North America, is to keep its Holyoke address, it must continue to act as a small business would, and that means strategic planning and, as Wright and Costello said, succession planning.
That later assignment is a difficult one for many small businesses to even acknowledge, let alone address, said Wright, adding that it’s the same with the merry-go-round, where this exercise takes a number of forms.
For starters, it means active recruiting of younger professionals within the community to join the board and become involved with the carousel, she said, adding that a new generation of leadership must eventually take the reins — literally and figuratively — from the group that waged the campaign to save PTC 80 a quarter-century ago.
Succession planning also means developing and advancing a plan to hire a full-time executive director, said Costello, adding that the merry-go-round has a part-time operations manager (15 hours per week), and there are others who have held that position in the past.
Hiring a full-time manager would be a big step, one that would dramatically alter the budgetary picture, Wright told BusinessWest, but such a move is necessary given the current challenging climate. But the broad “transition,” as she called it, will nonetheless be difficult for the carousel’s older ‘friends.’
“We’ve all been here 25 years,” she said. “And we’re all somewhat reluctant to let anything happen to this merry-go-round. We all have a personal investment in this, and it’s a sizable investment.”
Succession planning is just part of the discussion when it comes to securing the long-term future of the merry-go-round, said Costello, adding that strategic planning initiatives involving the attraction, like those staged for businesses of all sizes, have focused on that acronym SWOT — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
Clearly, the 20th-anniversary celebrations fall into that third category, she said, adding that the attraction’s leadership intends to use the many events and special programs on tap this year to introduce (or re-introduce) people to the carousel, with several goals in mind. These include everything from increasing direct ridership to booking more special events involving both children and adults; from recruiting more supporters to simply raising more funds.
“The 20th anniversary is a time to reflect on the many things that we’ve accomplished here and be proud of those accomplishments,” Costello said. “But it’s also an opportunity to re-connect with our supporters and make more friends.
“We recognize that, while our merry-go-round was the crown jewel at Mountain Park, the people who remember the park are older now,” she went on. “We understand that those people are not going to be able to share their memories of Mountain Park, so we need to attract a new generation of riders and supporters, and we’re cognizant of that as we make our plans for the future.”
As it did 25 years ago, the Friends group is reaching out to the community for donations, she said, adding that donors can become members of the merry-go-round’s Ring of Honor, a collection of brass plaques that bear the names of supporters ranging from Holyoke schoolchildren to businesses across all sectors.
Beyond fund-raising, one of the main goals moving forward is to maximize other revenue resources, said Costello, adding that the increase in ticket prices resulted in a roughly 70% increase in total revenue in 2012, “which made a huge difference.”
But long-term, the merry-go-round must be more successful with scheduling events, she continued, because they are both solid revenue generators and vehicles for generating future ridership and more get-togethers.
Overall, the ongoing assignment for the merry-go-round’s leadership team is to make the attraction — and downtown Holyoke in general — more of a true destination for families with children, said Jackowski, adding that there are many developments that are moving the city closer to that designation.
“We hope, by keeping this building as attractive as it is, and this park as attractive as it is, that the future looks bright,” he told BusinessWest. “We have our new neighbor, the computing center, we’re hopeful that the canal walk comes to fruition in the next five years, and there is more development down here that creates optimism. We want to be the focal point of all that.”
The Ride Stuff
John Hickey, who passed away in 2008, once wrote of carousels, “man, and high tech, has not yet devised a better way to illuminate the faces of children and parents with pure joy. The lights, the music, the kids dashing for the right horse, the clang of the starting bell, and the motion … you don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave every time around … and their parent will wave back. It never fails … it never will.”
PTC 80 has lived up to those words for more than eight decades, and especially in its new home in Holyoke’s downtown. Its first two decades there have been an extraordinary ride in every sense of that word.
And that’s why this anniversary will be a time to celebrate, but also a time to make sure that the ride will continue for decades to come.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com