‘Challenge Accepted’

Holyoke’s Planning Leader Welcomes Sky-high Expectations for the City




Marcos Marrero remembers that there was about a month between when he received the phone call from Mayor Alex Morse telling him he was being offered the job of planning and economic development director for Holyoke (which he quickly accepted) and when he actually moved into his office at One Court Plaza.

And he recalls spending it doing some very hard cramming on the nation’s first planned industrial city.

“That was Holyoke-intensive studying — I was consuming, eating, and breathing Holyoke every day for a month,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he learned as much as he could about its history, demographics, politics, neighborhoods, ongoing projects, and future prospects. “I said, ‘give me all the plans … I want the master plan, any redevelopment plans — just lay it on me.’”

Along the way, he remembers having an odd sensation of feeling sorry in some way for the people who held that post before him. They had essentially laid the track, he said, referring to predecessors Kathleen Anderson, now president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, and Jeff Hayden, now an administrator at Holyoke Community College, and he was going to be in a position to see that hard work yield some tremendous benefits for the city.

Such initiatives include the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which opened its doors last year; the pending reintroduction of rail service to the city, a development that should open some new doors of opportunity to the community; completion of the challenging renovation of the downtown fire station into a intramodal transportation center and education facility; movement toward creation of a thriving creative economy in the city; and continued evolution of this former manufacturing hub into a more diverse economy that also features the arts, technology, and retail.

“My impression was that this was really unfair to all my predecessors,” Marrero recalled. “Because I could see the arc of the past 20 years, and how everyone in Holyoke had worked together to put Holyoke in the position it’s in today.

“Not that this a slam dunk, by any means, what’s happening now,” he continued. “But I felt the conditions were such that, with good leadership, good vision, and help from community stakeholders, this city could just take off. I’m standing on the shoulders of the work that other people have done.”

And while appreciative of that hard work that’s been undertaken by those who occupied the office before him, Marrero, who just turned 30 and is part of a youth movement in Holyoke city government (Morse is only 24), said there is obviously considerable work still to be done, specifically in the realm of meeting and perhaps even exceeding the sky-high expectations many have for Holyoke to become a place where people want to live, work, and start a business.

“Right after the press announcement of my appointment, I remember being taken aback by the expectations that were thrown out there, and I said to the mayor, ‘this is not my modus operandi — I’d rather promise little and overdeliver,’” Marrero recalled. “And he said something to the effect of, ‘nope, you can’t do that here — the expectations are really high.’ And I said, ‘OK, challenge accepted.’”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Marrero about this very intriguing time in Holyoke’s history, those high expectations he mentioned, and how he, Morse, and other city officials plan to work together to turn potential into reality.


Background — Check

When asked how he came to occupy the front office in the municipal facility just a block or so from City Hall, Marrero paused for a second, glanced toward the ceiling, and offered a heavy sigh.

He did all that to indicate that there were a number of circumstances that brought him to this place and time — from developments in his wife’s medical career that eventually took her to Baystate Medical Center and the couple to Western Mass., to the departure of Anderson, to the ascension of Morse, who, as he interviewed a number of candidates for the planning and economic development post, became impressed with Marrero’s opinions on everything from modern urban renewal to reinventing Gateway cities.

Our story starts in New York City, where Marrero was born, but the scene quickly shifts to Puerto Rico, where he spent much of his youth, was educated, and started his career in planning and economic development. While attending the University of Puerto Rico, he initially majored in computer science (the technology field was still booming at the time), but soon shifted gears and ventured into political science and economics.

Upon graduating in 2004, he took a job as an economic analyst for the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Co., and soon thereafter started applying to graduate schools. He was accepted into the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and earned dual master’s degrees in Public Affairs and Urban and Regional Planning. While there, he studied under Lisa Jackson, who would go on to lead the Department of Environmental Protection and do considerable work in the broad field of climate change.

He took those diplomas and went to work in the governor’s office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, acting as a deputy advisor on federal affairs, energy, and climate change. When the governor lost in the next election, though, he was out of a job.

It was about this time that Marrero’s wife, Wanda, was applying for residency positions and found one within the Tufts University system “at somewhere called Springfield,” he remembers her saying. From there, she took a job at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, and Marrero found employment at the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s Energy Policy Office.

But they both had to start sending out résumés when St. Vincent’s abruptly closed after a prolonged period of economic woes. Wanda found a position at Baystate, while Marcos eventually found work as an adjunct professor at UMass Amherst, teaching Environmental Policy. He would later apply for, and win, a job as a land-use environmental planner for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in 2011.

This takes us up to the spring of 2012, when Anderson became the successor to Doris Ransford, the longtime director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, and Morse commenced a search for someone to fill her shoes. He eventually contacted Marrero at the recommendation of a mutual friend, and an interview was scheduled, although Marrero had his apprehensions about the position.

“Having worked with economic-development corporations before, I had the sense that a lot of politicians had a very narrow view of economic development,” he explained. “Like corporate welfare, or just getting projects done at any cost or without any regard for a more comprehensive view of what makes an economy work and what makes a city work.

“Sometimes you can’t really explain it all in dollars and cents,” he went on, adding that, the more the two talked, the more he came to believe that Morse had a better, much broader view on the subject. “The meeting was a feeler as much for me as it was for him.”

Those vibes, coupled with his strong first impressions of the city, erased any doubts he had about the position.

“I said, ‘these people get what economic development is all about,’” he recalled. “And I saw the layout of Holyoke, the canals, the grid, and the old buildings … there’s something about this place. It’s abuzz with energy, and when I got that same feeling from the mayor, I said, ‘I really want this job.’”

State of the City

Marrero remembers one of his first encounters with the City Council; actually, it was one of its subcommittees.

There was some tension and disagreement over items up for discussion, to the point where one of the councilors offered a form of mild apology. Marrero recalls being taken aback by such talk — as well as his desire to put things in their proper perspective.

“I said, ‘have you seen Puerto Rican politics?’” he recalled with a hearty laugh. “I said, ‘I thought it was a great meeting.’ The governor in Puerto Rico that I was working for had a legislature dominated by members of the other party; it was sort of like what President Obama is going through with the Republican House — but on speed. There was no legislation he could get passed, and in fact the government shut down in 2006 because they couldn’t agree on anything.”

That experience in council chambers has been part of an intriguing learning curve for Marrero, one he said is certainly ongoing, and also one of many examples of how he intends to put some of those stops on his résumé — and even his time studying computer science — to work in his current position.

To date, he said there has been progress on many key issues, and what he considers a solid working relationship between the administration and the City Council. As just one example, he cited the hiring of the city’s first ‘creative economy coordinator.’

“The mayor had presented the idea for an arts and culture director,” he explained. “There were some reservations, and I think the mayor was very receptive to some of the comments and concerns the councilors had, and, to his credit, he modified the proposal to include some of those comments, on such matters as the administrative costs related to that position and how it will support economic development.”

Looking ahead, he said he’s anticipating a similar cooperative spirit on such matters as leveraging the High Performance Computing Center, redeveloping the former Holyoke Catholic High School campus in the heart of downtown (work is slated to begin later this year), progress on the next stages of the Canal Walk, bringing passenger rail service back to the city (construction on the new platform is slated for the fall), building on what is already a solid foundation in the creative economy, and attracting more businesses and residents to the city.

“There are a lot of things going on in the city, and when individuals’ hopes and work are rewarded by seeing these physical manifestations of their efforts, it feeds in a positive way into their expectations, but also the belief that their hard work will pay off. So 2013 is going to be a very exciting year.”

Looking further down the road, Marrero said that, while his predecessors have done considerable work to fill in some of the canvas that is Holyoke’s present and future, there is still the need for more broad strokes and imagination.

As an example, he cited the large number of vacant, unused properties that still remain in Holyoke and have been identified for acquisition by the city in its urban-renewal plan — a total of about 32 acres of land, by his estimation.

“Holyoke has plenty of space to grow, and we need to do it in a way that’s different than urban renewal in other cities, which unfortunately has meant urban removal of certain communities, usually the poor, ethnic minorities, people who speak differently,” he explained. “That’s the tarnished past of urban renewal; it’s just a reality. We have the opportunity here to do it differently and do it in a way that builds on the strengths of our community and creates opportunities for everyone in the community.”

And this brings him back to that subject of expectations, something he’s not intimidated by because there are others working with and beside him to meet them.

“The reality is that with expectations comes a lot of support, and people here are willing to go the extra mile,” he said, referring to a number of constituencies — “be it a board member or volunteer, people who just want to share their ideas, state partners that are willing to look at your proposals more than once, partners who provide vital funding to make projects happen, people who connect with other partners to make projects happen, like the Innovation District Task Force, and city employees who are willing to stay until 10 at night with you to get something done.

“You don’t see that everywhere and at anytime,” he went on. “And that’s why I feel comfortable with the expectations; it’s not just on me. I think this city expects a lot of itself, and people come through.”


Bottom Line

Returning to his thoughts on what he learned and what he experienced during his month of Holyoke-intensive studying, Marrero said there was a good deal of humility when it came to all the track-laying work undertaken by his predecessors in planning and economic development.

That emotion has essentially given way to resolve, he went on, and a commitment to take full advantage of the hand that he’s been dealt and fulfill those sky-high expectations for the city.

As Morse told him when Marrero was first introduced to the media, there is no promising little and then overdelivering in Holyoke — there’s too much progress in many key areas and too many critical building blocks already in place for that.

But, as he said in response to the mayor, ‘challenge accepted.’


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]