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Holyoke Rebrands Efforts to Bring Tourism Back to the City and Its Museums

While visiting Washington, D.C., Kate Navarra Thibodeau recalls how confusing it was walking around and simply trying to find a restaurant.

“You’ve got all this incredible history around you,” she said, “but really what you want to find is a place to eat.” She told of finding street-level signposts with a wealth of information, not only outlining the vibrant historical background of the spot marking where you stand, but also restaurants and other businesses within a four-block radius.

From that trip came the idea behind a collaboration between Holyoke’s museums, business community, and civic leaders. A self-guided tour of the Paper City is in the works, to be incorporated with an update of the city’s history museums.

Called “Creating Holyoke,” the project was given a boost in the form of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for $400,000, and a state Department of Conservation and Recreation grant for $132,000, bringing the total budget close to $700,000.

Thibodeau is the city’s historian and one of the architects of the project. In a partnership with Wistariahurst Museum, Holyoke Heritage State Park, the Children’s Museum, the Holyoke History Room, and Enchanted Circle Theater, the plan is wide-ranging in details, but with very specific goals: to infuse Holyoke with civic pride, update the exhibited history of the city, and include the business community with a plan to return visitors to the streets downtown.

City museums have had to grapple with small budgets in recent years, and the existing exhibits reflect that shortcoming. Thibodeau said that exhibits on Holyoke’s immigration are “about 30 years old,” adding “they talk about the workers, and the city’s waterpower, the basic history. But they don’t take into consideration the Puerto Rican immigration.”

New exhibits for the project involve updating that chapter of the city’s history, but also showing living spaces of past populations from three different time periods, and a display in the newly-renovated carriage house at Wistariahurst documenting the past as seen through Holyoke’s recreational attractions.

Thibodeau said the signs to be installed downtown are still in the planning stages, but the business community likes the idea. “Local businesses, in my experience, want to be involved. But the problem has been that no one is asking them for their help, or no one is providing an opportunity for them to help,” she said.

Focusing on the city’s downtown, she continued, “yes, we need to get more restaurants; yes, we need to encourage business to come back. But in the meantime, let’s highlight what we do have here already.”

Coupled with a brochure highlighting all the spots on this heritage trail, both will function as a self-guided driving or walking tour. “The city has so much to offer,” Thibodeau said. “We envision this to be a tourist destination much like the city of Lowell.”

Local businesses will sponsor the signs, designed in such a way that Thibodeau calls “accidentally learning about history when you’re trying to get from point A to B.”

From the historic canal systems to the buildings and green spaces designed by world-renowned architects, to the existing 19th-century architecture of the industrial revolution, Creating Holyoke wants to ensure that not only is the past not dead, but it’s not the past at all — it’s still the present.

That, and they want to make sure that you know where to get lunch while you’re out walking around.

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