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A Developing Story

Business Owners Are Finding Opportunities in Holyoke

People call it “the wedge.”

That’s the name that’s historically been attached to the oddly shaped building within the former D. Mackintosh & Son textile complex off Gatehouse Road in Holyoke, which Steve Porter decided to make the home to his company, Porterhouse Media, in 2009.

He remembers bringing his mother to the location to gauge her reaction — and won’t forget her first thoughts on the property.

“She said, ‘it doesn’t have a whole lot of curb appeal,’ recalled Porter with a laugh, noting that there was a large amount of understatement in her voice.

But that wasn’t what Porter, who grew up in Amherst, was looking for. Instead, the former (and now occasional) traveling disc jockey and video maker, who had been working in New York, was searching for something that was priced exponentially less than the properties he’d looked at in Gotham, but would still offer a reasonable commute to that city and Boston.

He found it in the three-story, 10,000-square-foot ‘wedge,’ which most would say doesn’t look like much on the outside, but has some unique and well-appointed spaces inside — it was even profiled once on Home & Garden Television. The price tag: $344,000, roughly one-30th the price, by Porter’s estimates, that would have been placed on something comparable in the Big Apple.

“Rather than go to New York and pay a huge amount of money for a really small place, I saw some great opportunities and wanted to be part of something here,” said Porter, who lives on the third floor. “Holyoke, to me, offered more of what I’d call a blank canvas to work with; I feel more focused here.”

And by choosing this blank canvas, Porter became one of several entrepreneurs, and in many ways one of the first, to discover, or rediscover, Holyoke in recent years, and thus provide more momentum for a city that many say is enjoying a resurgence fueled by the arts, the new Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, and new leadership in City Hall.

“I feel like I’m at the beginning of a movement here,” he said, adding that the price of the real estate he purchased was only one of several motivating factors. “And it gives me a sense of joy to help out that movement in any way that I can. Anyone who decides to come here is joining that movement to make Holyoke a better place and rejuvenate this community.”

Vitek Kruta and Lori Divine feel the same way.

Vitek Kruta and Lori Devine

Vitek Kruta and Lori Devine, co-founders of Gateway City Arts, describe themselves as “enablers.”

The two became friends and then partners several years ago, and last February, they brought the property at 92-114 Race St. (the former Judd Paper mill) and launched Gateway City Arts.

This venture has a number of moving parts, from incubator space for aspiring artists to painting and dance classes, to space for lectures and recitals. Summing it all up, Kruta, a native of Prague and a noted restorer of paintings (he won awards for his work at Northampton’s First Church), said that he and Divine are “enablers.”

“We want to provide help, in many different ways, so that people can start their own businesses, their careers, their training opportunities,” he said. “We also want to give people a chance to perform and introduce their work to people in the community and potential clients.”

Eventually, the company hopes to create a large performance venue in 6,000 currently unused square feet of warehouse space within the complex, said Devine, adding that the broad goal behind this venture is to make the creative economy much more of a driving force in economic-development activity within the city.

And it was the arrival of Gateway Arts, as well as some related developments, such as the hiring of the city’s first ‘creative economy coordinator,’ that helped sell Kate Putnam on Holyoke when she was looking for a new home for her West Springfield-based business, Package Machinery.

“When artists go places, things start to change,” she said while offering a quick tour of her new facilities at 80-94 Commercial St. “It was the same in Northampton in the late ’70s — that city was rather lifeless, and then the artists moved in because the real estate was cheap and it was a good place to be. Look at what Northampton is now … the same thing can definitely happen here.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with a number of business owners who have made Holyoke their new address, and also with city officials who say the community is taking a number of steps to facilitate the process of writing more of these stories.

 

Momentum Is Building

Putnam said she started looking for new space about two years ago, even before the June 1, 2011 tornado roared through the Merrick section of West Springfield, damaging the property at 380 Union St. that had long been home to the company, which manufactures machines that package everything from candy to golf balls.

Her lease was due to expire, and, more to the point, the new owner of the building had not fulfilled promises to invest in the property. And that was before it filed for bankruptcy.

So Putnam commenced a search, starting in Springfield, specifically the Cottage Street area, and later in Agawam and different sites in West Springfield. Her preference was to lease, but she would also consider buying — if the conditions were right. But she couldn’t find anything that would bring that phrase into play.

And then, the broker she was working with, Liam Reynolds of NAI Plotkin, suggested she take a look at Holyoke.

Fast-forward about eight months, and she is hard on work on the myriad details required to have the company moved in (for the most part, anyway) at the Commercial Street property by the end of this month. This is the former home to Oakes Electric — which later merged with another operation and had been vacant for more than three years — that she closed on during the summer.

When asked why she eventually chose Holyoke, Putnam said simply, “they made it easy — it was like one-stop shopping.” That was in reference to city officials, who worked with her on finding a site and then facilitated answers to questions on everything from the assessment on the property to the projected costs for heat and power.

But there was more to it than that.

“I never thought of looking in Holyoke,” she told BusinessWest, “but it appealed to an awful lot of values that I have; I like the idea of being in a city, as opposed to an industrial park, I believe in renovating rather than building new, and I saw some things happening here that I wanted to be part of.

“There was affirmation in the Green High Performance Computing Center that Holyoke was on the map,” she went on. “But I also was encouraged by the arrival of Gateway City Arts. Holyoke has hired an arts person, and they have all these wonderful old buildings like this one that are solid as rocks. They can definitely make something happen here.”

And she’s not alone in that thinking.

Both Kruta and Devine now wear the ‘I love Holyoke’ buttons that have become popular in this, the nation’s first planned industrial city.

Kruta became a believer quite some time ago, having moved to the city a few years after emigrating from the Czech Republic in 1995. Levine, however, needed some convincing.

“I was scared to come here,” she admitted, noting that she’d long held a view of Holyoke as a crime- and poverty-riddled community to be avoided if at all possible. “When I was raising my kids, I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going there.’ Even going to the Children’s Museum, it was ‘you drive in, go straight to the museum, and then you get out of town.’”

But she has come around in a big way, and is now a strong advocate for the city, urging others to do essentially what she did — put the focus on the future and what might be, and not the past and what was.

“I love this city … the potential here in Holyoke is enormous,” she said. “People have gotten stuck in what was, but now it’s time to look in this city in a new way.”

 

Brush Strokes

Kruta and Devine intend to be at the forefront of Holyoke’s revitalization efforts. They believe strongly in the power of the arts to not necessarily create jobs — although they may do that on a limited basis — but to create vibrancy within a community.

And they intend to contribute in a number of ways, including bringing people to the city for classes on everything from watercolors to tango to antique restoration.

The first floor of their operation is set up much like a studio, where Kruta conducts classes on restoration techniques and art students create their own works. The second floor, meanwhile, has formal classroom space featuring ample light brought in by the mill’s huge windows, and a large conference room that can be rented out.

It also has a potential-laden incubator facility that is currently a work in progress. There are roughly 2,500 square feet of space that can be subdivided into perhaps 25 spaces for emerging artists, writers, and others looking for room to develop their talents.

Meanwhile, plans are in the works to create former warehouse space into a large performance hall and further build out existing space currently used for lectures and recitals. There is also a now-vacant third floor, which the partners intend to turn into residential space, although there are costly challenges to be overcome, including the replacement of several dozen large windows.

The broad goal, said Devine, is to use the center, as well as several art galleries in that same neighborhood, as a vehicle for bringing people to Holyoke and creating commerce — and perhaps some jobs and new business ventures.

“It’s time that people start to communicate and start to share vision, culture, experiences,” she said, “rather than everyone being in their own little corner. And that’s our goal — through all forms of creativity, we want to bring people together. If that leads to jobs, that’s great, but at least it will help get the city moving.

“Holyoke is changing,” she went on, “and we want to help people realize that.”

Devine and Kruta credited Mayor Alex Morse, elected last November, and others in City Hall with creating a strong sense of momentum, and also for encouraging people and businesses to give Holyoke a hard look.

“It feels like things are starting to move here,” she said. “The new mayor and some new city councilors have people really excited. The mayor is making a lot of headway in getting people out of where they’ve been and thinking in a new way, and that’s what’s required here.”

Morse, for his part, acknowledged that some progress has been made, but there is much work to be done when it comes to changing attitudes about Holyoke and getting more business owners to consider the community.

He told BusinessWest that, while he was campaigning for mayor throughout 2011, he rarely heard phrases like ‘they make it easy’ from business owners and managers, and those who were considering a move to the city.

In fact, he was told just the opposite.

“I heard repeatedly that ‘Holyoke is closed for business, and they make it as difficult as possible,’” he said, adding that his administration has responded by focusing on what he called the 3 Rs — “retain the development we have, recruit new development, and reform the process to make it easier to retain and recruit.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has created what’s known as the ‘permitting group,’ comprised of every office or board that a potential developer would have to go through to get something done in the city.

“We come together every other Tuesday morning — the Law Department, the Board of Health, the Fire Deparetment, the Building Department, Planning and Economic Development, Conservation, all of them,” he explained. “It’s a pre-development meeting — they sit down, review the project, and every department says, ‘you need to this, or you need to do that.’ Right from the get-go, people know what they’re getting into, and it’s incredibly helpful for people.”

Marcos Marrero, the recently appointed director of the Holyoke Office of Planning and Development, agreed. He said these efforts to streamline the permitting process, coupled with current trends — specifically renewed interest in urban spaces as places to work, live, and locate businesses — bode well for Holyoke and make it the right place at the right time.

“Holyoke is riding the crest of two trends,” he said. “In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the current was going away from urban areas, and now it’s going toward them — there’s been a reurbanization, if you will.

“Meanwhile, you have movement among two of the largest generations ever,” he continued. “The Baby Boom generation is downscaling, and Generation Y likes having walkable communities and doesn’t particularly like driving, as least when compared to other generations. So Holyoke’s timing is good.”

At the same time, the city has a number of strong selling points, he continued, among them a large inventory of affordable commercial property, inexpensive green energy, and an attractive, regional workforce.

 

Space Exploration

As he offered BusinessWest  a tour of the wedge, Porter stopped at several unique spaces, from the conference room — featuring unique brickwork that was created by a former tenant, a group of artists and brick masons — to the two studios, one of which doubles as his office, to one of the offices, a long, narrow space dominated by angles and edges.

“This is typical of what we have here,” he said of that office. “There are lots of cool spaces, and we’ve invested a lot in this building.”

In many ways, the space is conducive to creativity, said Porter, adding that his company specializes in transforming interview sound bites into song lyrics. He played one video the firm created for the National Basketball Assoc., called simply “Focus,” and another for the NBC show Community. It is working with TNT on a similar project for the new Dallas.

And while creating growth opportunities for his company, Porter has also become an ambassador, or salesman, of sorts, for the city he chose to call home — from himself and his business.

“I always speak highly of Holyoke because I believe in its future,” he said, adding that he’s done so at several events and in front of a host of media outlets. “And the story is this: if I can do this, then anybody can do it.

“For me, moving from New York to Holyoke was a big risk — I had to think about that one,” he continued. “I’m going to give up one of the most stylish and happening places in the universe and then come to a developing situation in Holyoke? None of that really mattered … this is a very creative environment, this place.”

Morse said he tells the Porterhouse Media story often when he talks to business leaders and those in the press, because inspiring more people to take similar risks is one of the main priorities for his administration.

And he’s going at the assignment in many different ways, from more aggressive marketing of the community (a new city website) to creative-economy networking events called Plug into the Valley (Porter has spoken at several), to tax-incentive financing agreements (the arts center received one). The city is also revitalizing its redevelopment authority after it lay idle for nearly decades, and it will soon conduct the first public auctions of tax-delinquent properties in years.

Together, these tactics and others are creating more interest in the city, at least in terms of phone calls to City Hall and scouting visits to the community, and also improving the odds of scripting more success stories in the years ahead.

And the High Performance Computing Center becomes another competitive advantage for the city, said Marrero, adding that it serves not only as a potential magnet for related technology companies, but as a great example of what the city is capable of supporting.

“This is a great proof point for the city,” he said, “because this is a massive project that consumes massive amounts of energy. It’s not just the cost of the energy that’s important, but the ability to deliver it, and deliver in a way that’s predictable and secure. Overall, this is a huge asset for the city moving forward.”

 

Building Blocks

When asked if he missed anything about New York, Porter thought for just a minute and said, “the clothing stores.”

“I miss being able to walk out my door and pick out a cool outfit,” he said, joking that the Holyoke Mall was fine for back-to-school shopping when he was a teenager, but not at this stage of his life and career.

Beyond the limited options for clothes shopping, though, Porter is quite content with Holyoke and the blank canvas he has steadily filled in over the past five years.

Others are doing the same — in both a literal and figurative sense — and contributing to what could become a masterpiece in a city that is enjoying a comeback, one building and one block at a time.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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WGGB encourages readers to share their thoughts and engage in healthy dialogue about the issues. Comments containing personal attacks, profanity, offensive language or advertising will be removed. Please use the report comment function for any posts you feel should be reviewed. Thank you.
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