Holyoke Has a History of Facing Challenge, Creating Opportunity
A Portrait of Resilience
As he talked about his city and its outlook moving forward, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia first turned the clock back nearly 150 years and did what amounts to a ‘what if?’ exercise.
He was referring to Holyoke’s ubiquitous canals, which were, when they were conceived, no small bit of engineering — and financial — daring.
“It was a risk,” said Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, who took office in late 2021. “When folks built the canal system … I think about what that conversation might have been like, the divide that might have been going on in this community. You had some who probably said, ‘yes, we need to be proactive and build this system,’ and others who likely said, ‘this is too much money; our taxes are going to go up if we do that, and besides, I’ll be gone in 30 years.’”
Fortunately, those in that first category prevailed, he went on, adding that the canals helped fuel decades of prosperity, jobs, and an enviable quality of life, and they put the city on the map. And as he looks ahead, Garcia believes Holyokers must have that same willingness to take reasonable risks — to be daring, if that’s the right word — and make the necessary investments to continue, and bring to a higher level, an ongoing renaissance in a city that was among the nation’s wealthiest and a model of innovation and manufacturing excellence.
“I’m trying to get people to not think short-term — the investments we make today are not just for next month or next year, but 20 to 30 years out,” he said. “We want to build a middle school, for example, something that would benefit this city for generations to come.”
Long-term thinking is one of necessary ingredients for continued progress in this city, said Garcia and many others we spoke with for this special section commemorating Holyoke’s 150th anniversary. Overall, they said many of the other needed ingredients are already in place, everything from a focus on entrepreneurship to inexpensive and reliable green energy; from a solid, diverse workforce to spaces in which new businesses can get started and eventually grow.
Jeff Hayden, currently vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College, previously served in several economic-development posts in the city, including as director of Planning and Economic Development. Nearly a half-century ago, he worked part-time at a Dairy Mart on Dwight Street managed by his father.
He has seen a lot of change over that half-century, and, more recently, a good deal of progress as Holyoke has diversified a business community once dominated by manufacturing, especially paper and textile making.
In the ’90s, manufacturing was still a pillar of the local economy, along with healthcare — there are several facilities providing everything from acute care to behavioral-health services to care to veterans, he noted, adding that, in recent years, diversification has included more retail (the city already boasts the Holyoke Mall), cannabis businesses, and strong growth in the arts and entertainment sectors.
And this diversification has strengthened the economy and made it more resilient, he said, adding that current efforts have been focused on creating opportunities across the board — meaning both jobs and opening the door to entrepreneurship.
“When I look at where Holyoke is today and where it’s going, it’s clear that its leaders are focused on providing economic opportunity for all, whether they be entrepreneurs who perhaps identify as Latinx or established businesses that have been here for a long time,” he said. “The hope is to help everyone grow, and grow together.”
Aaron Vega, the former state representative who is now serving as director of Planning and Economic Development, agreed.
“Like a lot of cities, we’re at a crossroads,” he said, noting that, while manufacturing has declined in recent years and decades, other sectors have emerged, such as cannabis, IT, and clean energy. One of the keys moving forward, said Vega and many others we spoke with, is that focus on entrepreneurship and helping new small businesses take root, in some cases literally.
“It’s very hard these days to start a small business, but we have a lot of supports for that, like EforAll and the chambers, and people now realize, especially here in Western Mass., that it’s the downtown businesses that create the character in a community,” he said. “So we’re really trying to focus on that; we’re really trying to empower people who live here already to open up their own business.”
Something to Celebrate
Like many others we spoke with for this special section, Garcia said the 150th anniversary is a time of reflection, an opportunity to look back at the city’s proud history and ahead to what the next chapters might be.
It’s also an opportunity to celebrate all that Holyoke is — a proud city with a rich history, rich traditions, a diverse population, a legacy of innovation, and other enviable qualities, he said, noting that perhaps the greatest of these is resilience.
Indeed, the city has always displayed the ability to withstand adversity and move on — whether it was the many challenges of becoming the nation’s first planned industrial city or reinventing itself and diversifying its economy when much of the manufacturing moved south or overseas, or, most recently, persevering through the COVID pandemic and its many side effects.
“It’s a celebration of resiliency,” he said, adding that the city will mark the occasion in a number of ways, including a gala, an ‘Eat, Drink, and Be Holyoke’ event, a time capsule that will be placed in City Hall and opened at the 200th anniversary, ‘150th’ merchandise (hats, key chains, etc.), commemorative beers made by local brewers, and much more. “It’s a celebration of everything Holyoke.”
Vega agreed, and noted that one of the driving forces behind the city’s ongoing resurgence is a focus on the arts and culture. He cited businesses such as Gateway City Arts, a live-performance venue, and organizations such as Beyond Walls, which partnered with Nueva Esperanza Inc., a community-development and social-services agency, to honor Holyoke’s designation as a Puerto Rican Cultural District, as well as the city’s rich history and diversity, with the installation of five large-scale outdoor murals.
“When you celebrate culture, people feel more connected to their community, more connected to their neighbors,” he explained. “And when you have the ability to celebrate art, it’s about bringing people into your community, with initiatives like Beyond Walls, the events at Wistariahurst, Gateway City Arts — it’s a celebration of music and arts that invites everyone to come join.”
Beyond the arts, Holyoke is seeing a surge in new businesses on High Street; a strong wave of cannabis businesses of all kinds, including large cultivation facilities; and an influx of data centers, including the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center. And in many cases, the city’s ability to provide lower-cost, green energy is a big reason why many of those businesses found Holyoke.
“Anyone who is looking for cheap electricity and green energy will knock on our door — we’re the first call they’ll make,” said Jim Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E), which can trace its roots to 1902. “It’s an interesting time, to be sure, and we’re getting a lot of inquiries; people like the story of the low-carbon, cheap electricity.”
Interest is across the board, he said, adding that it comes from data centers and cannabis cultivators (both huge consumers of electricity), but also from business owners who want to minimize their carbon footprint, he said, adding that HG&E is working with city officials to help make the most of this asset and many others the city can boast.
Another asset is Holyoke Community College, said Hayden, adding that, historically, significant numbers of city residents have been unable to take full advantage of the employment opportunities in the city because they were qualified for those jobs.
The college has long worked to change that equation through programs that will ready individuals for jobs, be they as nurses, medical assistants, chefs, or, most recently, workers in the cannabis industry. HCC also has a strong track record of students transferring students to four-year institutions.
“I like to say that we help people get a job, get a better job, or help them do their job better,” he said.
Traditions Old and New
Getting back to those planned celebrations … the 150th will be just one of a growing number of events in Holyoke this year, said the mayor, noting everything from the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade later this month to the Fiestas Patronales, which debuted last August — a four-day celebration of the city and region’s Puerto Rican culture and heritage and billed as the largest Latino event in Western Mass.
These celebrations, old and new, capture the city’s past, present, and future, he said, adding that they reflect the city, its history, and especially its people.
That’s especially true of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which this year will mark its 70th edition, said Karen Casey, president of this year’s event. The 69th parade was three years in the making because of COVID, she said, a tiring, very frustrating experience on many levels.
What the pandemic years did was make those in Holyoke and beyond — this is, after all, a regional event — appreciate the tradition even more, if that’s possible.
“After having gone through what we all went through a few years ago, you saw just how much this meant to everyone,” she explained, referring to everyone from parade committee members to those who watch each year along the parade route. “Everyone just has a greater appreciation for how important this is.
“This is the third-oldest parade in the country, and we work very hard to maintain high standards,” she went on. “Anyone from around Holyoke is very proud of it; they brag about it … it’s a great tradition.”
While the buildup to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade continues, so too does planning for the 150th anniversary, said the mayor, adding that one of the intriguing tasks — and big challenges — ahead is deciding what should go in the time capsule.
Organizers are already thinking about items like one of the Super Bowl programs created by Hazen Paper, a Holyoke High School yearbook, T-shirts, a history of the city, and much more. It may take the shape of a volleyball with a large box inside.
The task of deciding what goes in the limited space in the time capsule is made more complicated by the many aspects of the city’s history and the many objects — recent and more than a century old — needed to tell the story. In many ways, it’s a good problem to have.
But getting back to that matter of resiliency, Vega said that trait is at the heart of the 150th celebration. And it is one shared by the community and the people who have lived here over the past few centuries.
“People talk about Boston Strong in the wake of the marathon bombing, but there’s also Holyoke Strong; it’s about resiliency, and it’s about history,” he said. “People have always come to Holyoke who have been migrants and have had nothing — and they built a life here. That’s what we need to keep remembering. This has always been a place where people come, get that grit, and find a path.
“This is what we’re celebrating as the city turns 150,” he went on, adding, again, that there is so much to celebrate.