Idea Mill Points Way to a Vibrant Holyoke

“Being down at the bottom gives you the chance to come back.”
That was one of the many messages that John Geraci, who has launched several Internet-based startups, left with participants at Idea Mill (see cover story, page 38). He was addressing an audience of entrepreneurs, business leaders, city-planning experts, and others interested in seeing Holyoke make exactly that kind of comeback.
‘Down at the bottom’ may have been a harsh way to put it, but it’s undeniable that this unique community — one of the nation’s first planned industrial cities, with a central manufacturing district built along a series of canals — has seen better days; it still ranks among the poorest cities in Massachusetts, and many of those formerly bustling mills have been vacant for decades.
But change is in the air.
Local economic-development officials have been talking about the rise of an Innovation District along the canals, and city leaders are buoyed by the ongoing development of the high-performance computing center that won’t produce many jobs, but will surely raise the city’s profile in attracting other high-tech businesses.
Idea Mill, which brought together a few dozen visionaries to discuss Holyoke’s potential, further focused those goals by emphasizing, throughout the day, the concept of ‘entrepreneutial density,’ the idea that many innovative companies, startups and established firms alike, working in one area raises the bar for all of them — not just through competition, but collaboration as well.
The idea of CEOs discussing current projects and future ideas among one another wasn’t the paradigm 20 years ago, said Baer Tierkel, another serial entrepreneur, but that kind of shared passion can be the lifeblood for a growing economy — in this case, one that could spring up in the old mill buildings along the canals.
That’s why another recurring theme at Idea Mill was promoting those buildings themselves, and convincing entrepreneurs to see them not as relics from a long-ago past, but living real estate with a palpable sense of history mingled with a modern, funky vibe. Many businesses have already caught on — the success of Open Square, where the conference was held, speaks to that — but event organizers believe the Innovation District can be so much more.
There’s plenty to be excited about in the Paper City these days, from the high-performance computing center to the possibility of a large resort casino. But what the speakers at Idea Mill made abundantly clear is that the city’s fortune won’t rise on technology itself, or any individual building project, but on people with passion and a vision, competing with each other while collaborating on something greater: a new, vibrant Holyoke.
We’ve said many times that economic development and job growth in this region will come organically. It will happen the same way it happened 200 years ago, with entrepreneurs taking concepts for new products and turning them into businesses. There are many ways to foster entrepreurship, and one of them is to relate success stories that happened here (complete with the challenges and struggles that are part and parcel to each of those stories) with the hope that they will inspire others who want to choose that path, and convince them that they don’t have to move to Cambridge or Silicon Valley to achieve those dreams.
That’s what Idea Mill is all about, and we consider it an exciting addition to the many endeavors taking place in the Valley to inspire the vision and entrepreneurial daring it will take to transform Holyoke and the entire region.
And that’s an idea worth developing.

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