Doing Business in: Holyoke

All Eyes Are Focused Again on the Paper City
Doing Business in: Holyoke

Doris Ransford says she’s excited that private investment is driving Holyoke’s renaissance.

Doris Ransford calls Holyoke “a city of contrasts.”

As president of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, she said the stark realities of poverty, unemployment, and urban blight should not be the focus at this point in the city’s history, a time when most would agree that the potential exists for progress on an historic level.

“For years now,” she told BusinessWest, “people have had good ideas, and it’s not that those ideas weren’t good, it’s just that the time wasn’t right, the situation wasn’t right.”

But all that is changing.

Groundbreaking for a high-performance computing center (HPCC), scheduled for this fall, is arguably one of the most exciting current developments in any depressed urban location in the state, if not the entire nation. But Mayor Elaine Pluta emphasized that, while this investment will have a profound impact on the city, there are many other elements that are coming together to give Holyoke a foothold on 21st-century reinvention.

She listed projects that, taken singularly, would be a boon for any city: the new multi-modal transportation center on Maple Street, the renovation of the Victory Theatre, commuter-rail expansion linking Holyoke to interstate transit, and the Canal Walk revitalization project.

“The challenges are to try to get something jump-started, to bring people down here,” she explained, pointing out the window to the city center. “People are the economic engine of what needs to get things going for economic development. You need people walking around, shopping, living … that’s our hope for the downtown.”

Open Square is John Aubin’s answer to that hope. For decades, it had been a mill property owned by his family, but in 1999 he returned to the area from New York and decided that the time had come for something more at the sprawling site.

“We have developed the space for people to live and work in, as part of the growth of small urban areas,” he said. “And it’s going quite well. We’ve brought 50 businesses into the center of Holyoke without subsidy from government. We’ve done it based on the market demand for it.”

Like most people in town, Aubin agreed that it is private investment that can act as the primary catalyst for significant revitalization in Holyoke, and that too is another unfolding chapter in the historic city. While the public and private entities — universities, Beacon Hill, and international computer firms — are all looking to invest the Paper City, it does seem that the city will continue to be one of contrasts, but also long-overdue good fortune.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

“What is most exciting now,” said Ransford, “is that private investment is going to drive the fortunes of the city. The HPCC isn’t a government handout; it’s not ‘you poor city, let’s help you,’ it’s about the resources and the opportunities. The city has proven to be worthy of smart investors.

“We can no longer depend on huge influxes of public money,” she continued. “It’s not going to happen for a long time.”

Agreeing with that sentiment, Pluta said the city is working actively to ensure that the public projects and the HPCC are united in their approach to solidifying the city’s unfolding ‘Innovation District.’ City Hall has formed an Innovation Task Force, which has met several times since the announcement of the HPCC. “We have to be prepared for the spinoff businesses,” she said.

The mayor acknowledged that many questions are yet unanswered about specific details on the HPCC, and those will be addressed in the coming weeks.

Until then, Ransford said, patience is key. “Everyone wants instant gratification nowadays. We know that development doesn’t happen that way. But there will be a shovel in the ground this fall for the HPCC. People are just grasping for information because they just want this to happen so badly.”

As someone who has been involved in the city’s role for the HPCC from the earliest days, Brendan Ciecko knows firsthand the importance of the coming year. Speaking to BusinessWest from Poland, where some business has taken him temporarily away from the Paper City, Ciecko said that, in order to continue to attract those important resources from the private sector, Holyoke and the Commonwealth need to be as cooperative and aggressive as possible.

“After the HPCC is up and running, if the city and its economic-development partners play their cards right, they should be able find success in promoting the city to the international market as a cost-effective location for intensive computing and green and clean tech,” he said. “Let’s think and dream as big as possible. Some cities only have one opportunity to reinvent themselves, and this is currently that time.”

All signs augur an auspicious future for Holyoke, but Ciecko is not one to lock into a waiting game for what will be. He cited Donald Saunders of the Mass. International Festival of the Arts, and that group’s success in securing financing for the Victory Theatre, along with Open Square’s Aubin, as two perfect examples of what is being done right now to bolster the strength of Holyoke’s downtown.

“They both have a clear and well-thought-out vision of what downtown can and should be,” he said, “but on top of that, they have the courage and perseverance to put time, money, and resources where their mouths are. Courageous fellows like them are worth listening to.”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

While Ciecko modestly excluded himself from that company, the reality is that he runs a parallel course toward a high-tech renaissance just up the road from those big names linked to the HPCC.

At the corner of High and Suffolk streets, in a nondescript building formerly housing an accounting firm, is an incubator of sorts for young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs. There, Ciecko owns and offers space alongside his own successful operation, Ten Minute Media.

Among the tenants there are the Dunn brothers, Sam and Zach, from Wilbraham. Zach mentioned that it was strangely fortuitous how their business, One Mighty Roar, came to be located in Holyoke.

He and his brother learned of Ten Minute Media, during a class in high school. “We both greatly admired what he was doing, and knew that he, just a few years older than us, was doing exactly what we wanted to do. Randomly one day, I reached out to him through social media. I think I added him as a friend on Facebook.”

Less than a year later, the company is designing Web sites and mobile applications, and maintaining a highly influential industry-related blog. “It has grown to over a half-million views per month,” said Sam. “It’s used, as we’ve come to find out, at a number of schools of higher education throughout the world. We’ve been published in several foreign magazines.

“We reach more than 200 countries per month,” he continued, with Zach interjecting, “provinces, too! There are only 195 countries.”

Having such an influential presence in their industry is proving to be an enormous success for the brothers, who have yet to finish their studies at the University of Hartford. Dollars aside, Zach said, “at this current pace of business, we’re all but certain that we’ll be able to work full-time by graduation. It’s sustainable and growing fast, which is an exciting combination to have.”

As with Ciecko’s company across the hall, the Dunns can operate their business anywhere, as long as there’s an Internet connection. Echoing Ransford’s thoughts on the city, Zach said that, with all of the new media that they are helping to shape, there’s a stark contrast between what is happening in that address and the rest of the city … so far.

Sam agreed. “Holyoke is a place for us that we want to see live up to its potential, in culture, in driving new business to us,” he said. “But right now, we are in a bubble. What’s happening with the computing center, that will open up possibilities.”

And big business thinks so, too.

Everything Old Is New Again

One of the names attached to the HPCC, Cisco, announced this past February its plans to transform Holyoke into a ‘Smart+Connected Community’ between the next six to 12 months. Holyoke is the first existing city that Cisco has undertaken. Previous attempts have focused on developing urban centers in the Middle East and Asia.

The implications are enormous. Cisco plans to build in a strong technology infrastructure, wireless and high-speed, but also to integrate software and hardware packages to make the city a paragon of efficiency. Aubin put the process into lay terms.

“The simplest way to look at it,” he explained, “is, if you put in a digital thermostat at your home, you typically save 20% right off the bat. Think of a city doing that by putting in smart meters for electricity, for water and sewer. Think of the savings on that kind of a scale. Then think of the peripherals, like communications for emergency services. This is an enormous market for these companies. Cisco has identified it as a $30 billion market, and Holyoke is its test pilot for working with existing American cities.”

Just up the road in their offices, the Dunn brothers agreed that the city is at an exciting time in its history. “We are at the point now, here, where we can shape what it is that we are doing, and what we can do,” Sam said.

With so much coming into Holyoke, the possibilities for the city are impressive. But the men from One Mighty Roar, part of that foundation of new technology and private investment, keep their focus grounded on new clients, bigger clients … and graduation from college.

Still, they have no immediate plans to leave town. “Our money means a lot more here than it would in Brooklyn or Boston,” Zach said. “And that is great for start-ups.”

As he looked across his desk at his brother, the two nodded in agreement. “As for a place to do business,” Sam said, “I think it will be brilliant.”