In Holyoke, the Past, Present, and Future Come Together

Pride and Promise

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan says Holyokers, like himself, share a deep sense of pride in their community.

Jim Sullivan says he’s not really sure where it comes from. Like most people from Holyoke, he’s just taken it for granted.

He was referring to the immense pride people take in being from this city and, in a great many cases, still living in it.

“There’s been a lot of change over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the spirit of the people,” said Sullivan, president of the O’Connell Companies, which was started in Holyoke and is almost as old as the city itself (it will mark its own sesquicentennial in six years). “There is a very proud heritage in the city of Holyoke, and it still exists today. Even with the youth today — and I like to spend some time with them at the Boys & Girls Club, where I’m a trustee — you get a sense of pride with the folks that you talk to.”

This pride is something that’s almost palpable as you talk with people from this city, and it was referenced by just about everyone we talked with for this special section — in one way or another.

“There’s a saying … as Holyokers, we can talk bad about Holyoke, but you can’t talk bad about Holyoke,” said Gary Rome, owner of Gary Rome Auto Group, another Holyoke native, and someone with a huge presence in the city. “People here are very committed and passionate about their city.”

Beyond this omnipresent pride, Rome, Sullivan, and other business leaders we spoke with see many other qualities in Holyoke — history, tradition, diversity, economic progress, collaboration, energetic new leadership, new businesses, new business sectors (including cannabis and green energy), and something they’ve always seen: opportunities.

As in opportunities for entrepreneurs, for individuals looking for work or a career, for professionals looking for an affordable place to live, and for people aspiring to work for themselves instead of for someone else.

“There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit really coming alive in the city,” said Lynn Gray, general manager of the Holyoke Mall, which opened 44 years ago, changing the landscape in the community in many ways. “And that’s exciting because it benefits the city; it benefits everyone in and around the mall, having that entrepreneurial spirit. Moving forward, it’s a great path to be on.”

Meg Sanders, one of those entrepreneurs — she opened Canna Provisions on Dwight Street, part of a wave of cannabis-related businesses in Holyoke — agreed. She said she sees a great deal of vibrancy and entrepreneurial energy in the city, not just in cannabis, but also in the arts, hospitality, retail, and more.

“There’s a lot happening here — Holyoke is a great city that has so much to offer,” she said, adding that downtown is becoming more vibrant and, with many new types of arts and hospitality businesses opening, becoming much more of a destination.

Matt Bannister, senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility at PeoplesBank, another Holyoke institution nearly as old as the city (it was founded by silk-mill owner William Skinner in 1885), concurred.

Steve Grande (left) and his son, Ben

Steve Grande (left) and his son, Ben, have engineered a transformation at Meridian Industrial Group.

He cited Gateway City Arts on Race Street, a live-entertainment venue, as an example of a relatively recent arts-fueled resurgence in the city, one that displays the trickle-down effect of such businesses and their ability to spur more development.

“Gateway is an example of the kind of anchor that you can build around,” he explained. “You get some nightlife, and the next thing you know, you have entrepreneurs and food trucks and all that. What’s happened down at Gateway, and what’s happening on Main Street, is that there’s some nice enthusiasm and energy.

“Overall, there is a good core of solid businesses, and there is a government in place that understands the importance of business development — we have smart people with a good vision,” Bannister went on, adding that the current wave of entrepreneurial energy coupled with large amounts of state and federal stimulus money make this a unique and potentially powerful moment in the city’s history.

For this special 150th-anniversary celebration edition, BusinessWest talked with a number of business owners about what they see today in Holyoke — and what they expect to see down the road.


Making Progress

There’s a manhole cover embedded in the floor just inside the main entrance to the property at 529 South East St., near the lower canal in Holyoke.

It bears the name J.W. Jolly, the company that made manhole covers for cities across the country and around the globe at that site more than 140 years ago.

There’s a mat now covering the one in the lobby here because more than a few people tripped over it, said Steve Grande, a former Springfield police officer who bought the business that was operating there, Central Massachusetts Machine, in 2009 and eventually changed the name to Meridian Industrial Group to reflect a broader customer base and product portfolio.

Indeed, this cutting-edge machine shop that he manages with his son, Ben, now specializes in very large parts (up to 30,000 pounds), including components for missiles, submarines, and even NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) program that famously knocked a meteorite off its orbit a few months back.

Meridian is an example, and there are many of them in this city, where the past, present, and future come together at the same mailing address. And this is one of the many things being celebrated as the city turns 150.

It’s like that at the Canna Provisions facility on Dwight Street, where a dispensary designed to look like an art gallery has been created in an old mill where Yankee Candle once leased space and began its meteoric rise.

It’s like that at the Gary Rome Hyundai dealership on Whiting Farms Road, where a combination car wash and dog wash is taking shape on property that also boasts a solar array and, in his office, pictures of Rome’s father, who started selling cars in Holyoke more than 60 years ago.

It’s like that the O’Connell Companies’ gleaming new headquarters building on Kelly Way, which includes photos of the company’s founder, Daniel J. O’Connell, and his descendants, as well as construction projects undertaken decades ago — specifically the Memorial Bridge reconstruction project and the Rowes Wharf initiative in Boston, that won Build America awards from Associated General Contractors of America.

And it’s like that PeoplesBank’s banking center at 1866 Northampton St., site of the former Yankee Pedlar, a popular restaurant and gathering spot for generations of city residents.

Yes, the past, present, and future come together seamlessly in this city, where change is as constant as tradition.

Lynn Gray, general manager of the Holyoke Mall

Lynn Gray, general manager of the Holyoke Mall, says there a great deal of “entrepreneurial spirit” coming alive in the city.

This change can been seen everywhere — on High Street, where many new businesses have opened in recent years (see related story on page XX); at the mall, where many of the traditional retail stores have been replaced with entertainment-related businesses, such as a trampoline center and a bowling alley; in the countless mills, many of them now occupied by cannabis-related ventures; on Race Street, where Gateway City Arts and other arts- and hospitality-related businesses are now operating; at the historic Cubit Building, now home to apartments and the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, and elsewhere.

What hasn’t changed is the great pride that people take in their city, and the spirit of entrepreneurship that built the community and is fueling its resurgence today. In fact, what business leaders see when they look at the city today is continued progress and revitalization.

Bannister, like others we spoke with, credited Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, and Aaron Vega, former state representative and now director of Planning and Economic Development in Holyoke, for creating a business-friendly environment in the city and generating real momentum on several fronts.

“They’re tilling a lot of soil in order to make things happen,” Bannister said. “When you throw a lot of seeds out, you’re never sure which ones are going to take and which ones aren’t, but you’re creating opportunities for things to happen.”


No Place Like Home

Those we spoke with said they consider it important not to just do business in Holyoke, but to be actively involved in the community and especially with efforts involving the next generations of Holyoke leaders.

Rome said his family has been doing business in Holyoke for almost a century. His grandfather started with a drugstore, he believes, and then opened a haberdashery. As Rome tells the story, money was so tight that his grandfather’s store and the neighboring shoe store would share a telephone.

Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister credits Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia and his administration for creating a business-friendly environment and fueling a surge in entrepreneurship.

“They had a hole in the wall, and they would pass the telephone back and forth through the wall,” he said, adding that things have certainly changed, for both his family and the city. What hasn’t changed is the family’s commitment to the city.

Indeed, Rome, was recently named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2023, not only for his success in business — he was recently named TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year — but for his work within the community, and especially Holyoke. He is a member of the foundation board at Holyoke Community College, and has donated his time, energy, and talent to countless nonprofits, while getting his company involved with them as well.

“When I look at Holyoke today, I see a lot of hope, a lot of passion,” he said. “And I see a strong initiative to let people know about all the good things that are happening in the city, and you can see that first-hand with our mayor and our economic-development team.”

Sullivan, who has been involved with the Boys & Girls Club for more than a decade now, said O’Connell supports a number of organizations and initiatives, from Girls Inc., which found a new home in the O’Connell Companies’ former headquarters on Hampden Street, to Providence Ministries for the Needy.

Gary Rome

Gary Rome, one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2023, is one of many Holyoke business leaders actively involved in the community.

PeoplesBank, meanwhile, has always been heavily involved in the community — supporting its nonprofits, being the main sponsor to the city’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and backing the many efforts at EforAll, the chamber, and other agencies to promote entrepreneurship and help others launch their own ventures, a key to the city’s continued progress.

“There’s an awful lot bubbling up,” Bannister said. “You have to wait and see which ones take root and which ones don’t, but we work with the Holyoke EforAll group to drive entrepreneurship because that’s how the next generation of businesses will come up; it won’t be a giant company that you lure here with tax incentives — it will be a whole lot of small businesses that will take off. It’s entrepreneurs at the street level that will drive growth.”

Even some of the relative newcomers to the scene in Holyoke said they realized early on the importance of getting involved, collaborating with others to generate more positive energy in the city, or just choosing the city as a landing spot.

Indeed, Sanders said there were many reasons why Canna Provisions put down roots in Holyoke, literally. Business-friendly bylaws and attractive space were among them, but there was also a desire to positively impact a city that was negatively impacted by the war against drugs and has, as she put it, “such good bones.”

“For us, Holyoke was a perfect canvas to do good,” she explained, adding that, in addition to bringing jobs and a new storefront to the city, the venture is also sparking other new business. Meanwhile, Sanders herself is getting involved with several initiatives, from the 150th-anniversary celebrations to the parade committee.

“Holyoke is an amazing city with so much potential, and bringing awareness to downtown and making sure everyone knows about all the cool things that are happening is very important,” she said. “Downtowns don’t turn around overnight, but it’s helpful if a community gets behind it — we see things turn around faster when everyone gets behind those efforts.”

Grande agreed, noting that he’s seeing progress in the community and is getting involved himself, with everything from workforce-development issues in manufacturing (he’s involved at Dean Tech and, specifically, an ongoing project to market its manufacturing programs) to his work as vice president of the Holyoke Taxpayers Assoc.

“I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and let other people do the heavy lifting,” he said. “We see improvements and excitement; this administration is bringing city officials together, and the real push from the business community is to make the city more attractive to potential new businesses by streamlining the permitting process, addressing crime, and much more. There’s an upward trajectory, but Holyoke has not been an easy sell.”


Passion Play

Flashing back more than a half-century to his youth, Sullivan said he and his friends thought Holyoke was “the center of the universe.”

It was only when they got older that their perspective changed — but only somewhat.

For many, it’s still the center of their lives, if not the universe, and the home of their businesses. It’s a unique and special place where the past, even the events of 150 years ago, are never far away and the future seems increasingly bright.