Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight: Holyoke

In Holyoke, Municipal Investments Pay Dividends

Mayor Alex Morse

Mayor Alex Morse says Holyoke has been a leader among area communities in efforts to build a creative-economy sector.

When Alex Morse was elected mayor of Holyoke in 2011, he was determined to revitalize the city and alter the way people thought about it.

“My number-one job was to change the perception that Holyoke’s best days were behind us,” he said.

His efforts have been largely successful, and dedicated planning and teamwork have led to major investments in infrastructure and noteworthy projects.

“Good things have happened in the last year, and there are a lot of shovels in the ground. People can see things moving forward, which is a sign that the economy in Holyoke is getting better, and we will continue to put more shovels in the ground this year,” Morse said. “The city is on a positive trajectory.”

The most significant undertaking is the new, $3.5 million passenger-rail platform being built on Dwight and Main streets. “We broke ground on Dec. 22, and when it is finished in September, it will be the first completed rail platform in Western Mass.,” the mayor said.

The project is a reflection of foresight, because when Morse took office, there were no plans for a commuter-rail stop in Holyoke. “But it was a huge economic-development opportunity, and although there were times when funding was short, we were able to get $4 million in state and federal funds for it through MassWorks grants; it has been paid for without taking any money from local sources,” Morse said, adding that Marcos Marrero, the town’s Planning and Economic Development director, worked closely with the state Department of Transportation, “and we made it a priority project, as it is integral to the revitalization of our downtown.”

In addition, Morse said new businesses have opened and apartments are under construction (more about that later) that will help to reinvigorate the city.

“We see ourselves as part of the Springfield/Hartford metro area, and have a lot of space available that is very affordable. People are recognizing that, and folks from as far away as San Francisco are investing here,” he told BusinessWest, citing the purchase of the Wauregan building on 384 Dwight St., which is co-owned by San Francisco artist Scott Reilly, and adding that Vertitech IT moved its national headquarters to Holyoke last year, and the city helped the company work with Holyoke Community College to find employees.

Expanding the creative-arts community has been a cornerstone of the city’s economic-development strategy, and Morse hired a creative-economy coordinator shortly after he took office. “We’re the first community in the state to have a full-time person dedicated to bolstering the creative economy. It is a job creator that generates a lot of revenue, and we have seen an uptick of artists moving here, and a spike in the development of makers spaces,” he said.

They include Gateway City Arts on 91-114 Race St., which was founded in 2012 by artists Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta with a cash incentive from the city. “The business provides space in which craftspeople work, teach, and hold events. It has become an incubator space for artists,” Morse said.

“People are amazed at the amount of talent we have in Holyoke, and on any given night, you can see cars parked on Race Street for an art gallery, opening show, or performance,” he added. “We’ve taken it very seriously.”

He also pointed to the Brick Co-workshop Co. on Dwight Street as another example of success. Artists representing 10 different trades have made it their home and are helping to promote the city as a center for arts and crafts. Plus, the Holyoke Creative Arts Center, which provides classes at a minimal cost, has plans to move from 400 South Elm St. into the three-story, red-brick Wauregan Building, located in the newly designated Art and Innovation District, later this month.

Time and effort has also been spent to encourage people in the community to open businesses, and Holyoke was one of six cities named as a winner of the Working Cities Challenge. It was sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which identified 21 working cities whose median income was lower than the state average, then challenged them to create innovative proposals that would help provide employment.

Holyoke’s winning program is called the Stimulating Potential and Accessing Resources or Knowledge Initiative (SPARK). Its goal is to link the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center with the city’s innovation-economy strategy and increase the number of businesses owned by Latinos. The initiative is being led by the city in partnership with the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, and is supported by other partners in the public, private, and nonprofit realms.

Morse said the idea is to create a pipeline that will help Latinos who are interested in the creative arts see themselves as entrepreneurs and open businesses. “We want to continue to build on our local talent and have hired a director for the program,” he said, adding that the city will receive $250,000 over three years to implement the program.

Plethora of Projects

When a city invests in itself, Morse said, it sends a message that it is willing to partner with businesses to grow the economy.

To that end, Holyoke boasts a new library and senior center, and also kicked off Phase 2 of a $4.3 million Canal Walk project on Race Street over the summer. Phase 1, which runs between Dwight and Appleton streets, is complete, and the second section of the walkway will include a foot bridge over the canal.

“This is just one of the improvements we’ve made to catalyze retail businesses along the canal and make our downtown walkable,” Morse said.

Vibrant metropolises also contain residential living space, he added, noting that the city is making progress on this front as well. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in August for a $20 million project that will transform the former Holyoke Catholic High School into 55 one- and two-bedroom apartments. The city has been working with Denis Walsh, who owns Weld Management, for several years on his vision to create the new residences in the 74,000-square-foot building, which is set on 2.3 acres.

“The prospect of getting more people to live downtown is exciting, and this is a great example of a public/private partnership,” Morse said, noting that the city contributed $750,000 toward the project. He added that a $1.4 million renovation of Veterans Park, which can be seen from the building, was completed last year.

The Holyoke Transportation Center also overlooks the park and contains a café on the first floor operated by the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House. Holyoke Community College holds classes in the building, and it is also home to a Head Start program.

“The conversion of Holyoke Catholic High School will complete that block and bring more life to the neighborhood,” Morse said, adding that Walsh is also developing high-end, market-rate apartments on the upper floors of a few other buildings.

One challenge the city faces, however, is a lack of eateries downtown. Attracting restaurateurs has been difficult because liquor licenses have not been available. In order to mitigate the problem, Morse put together a proposal that received approval from the City Council and the state, which will give Holyoke 13 additional liquor licenses.

“The caveat is that they can only be used for full-service restaurants in the downtown urban-renewal district,” the mayor said. “Although a liquor license can go for upwards of $100,000 on the open market, these will only cost $10,000 because they’re being offered as an economic incentive. We plan to hold an event later this month to explain what is involved, and have invited people in town as well as restaurant operators from places that include Worcester, Hartford, Amherst, and Pittsfield.”

Plans have also been made to address the former Parsons Paper Co. site, which has been an eyesore since a fire devastated the property in 2008. Northeast Utilities has provided $250,000 to assess the contamination, demolish what remains of the buildings, and clean up the brownfields, as part of a mitigation agreement connected to a former electric plant near the dam and canal.

When the work is complete, the property will be put on the market, and Morse said a business has already expressed interest in the site.

Meanwhile, Divine and Kruta, who opened Gateway City Arts, also purchased the Steam Building on Race Street last year and are turning it into office space.

“The city and Holyoke Community College recently announced that HCC is moving its entire culinary-hospitality department downtown, and the Steam Building is being considered as one of the potential sites,” Morse said. “We are hoping to pair the college program with a full-service, privately owned restaurant.”

Private-sector growth is also occurring, and Marcotte Ford on Main Street recently broke ground on an $8 million expansion. “We worked hard to keep them here,” Morse said. “They were landlocked, but were able to purchase an old dealership next to them. We’re working to help them get some city land between the properties as well as negotiating a tax incentive.”

Bright Future

Morse said a number of other projects are on the horizon, among them the redevelopment of the old Lynch Middle School.

The project was put out to bid last spring, and the city chose Frontier Development from the firms that responded. It will create 25,000 square feet of retail space in the building with the opportunity for expansion, which will lead to jobs and turn a non-taxpaying property into one that generates taxes, Morse told BusinessWest. “Plus, we think it will bring people to the city, as it’s right off the highway.”

In addition, the recently decommissioned Mt. Tom coal plant will be assessed to determine what it would take to clean it up and reuse the property.

The mayor said the projects that have come to fruition have not happened overnight, and the effort and thought that have gone into them will continue.

“Today,” he concluded, people see Holyoke as a city on the rise.”

Holyoke at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1850
Population: 40,135 (2012)

Area: 22.8 square miles

County: Hampden

Residential Tax Rate: $19.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.74
Median Household Income: $33,030
Family Household Income: $36,262
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center; Holyoke Public Schools; Holyoke Community College; Amica Mutual Insurance Co.
* Latest information available