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Community Profile: Holyoke

The Art and Science of Holyoke’s Economic Growth

HolyokeMapIf cultivating a vibrant city is equal parts art and science, Holyoke certainly has plenty of both.

The science ranges from the $165 million Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center that opened in November to a number of high-tech firms moving into former mill space along the canals, to the ‘green’ hydroelectric power harnessed by the Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River.

As for the art, just ask the painters, photographers, crafters, filmmakers, and other artisans — perhaps about 100 of them, by some counts — who have set up shop in Holyoke’s central business district over the years, and who are set to become an even greater force with a new focus by city leaders on what’s known as the ‘creative economy.’

Simply put, there’s plenty going on in a city that has long talked about the promise of renewal but is now seeing some hard evidence that it’s happening.

To Alex Morse, the 23-year-old mayor now well into his second year at the head desk at City Hall, that progress is a direct result of city departments, economic-development agencies, and business leaders formulating specific strategies and working in concert to set them in motion.

“I feel like we’re not operating in silos,” Morse said. “Every action we take is part of a strategic plan. That’s what’s most impressive — everyone is speaking the same language, and they know where we need to go, and we’re making the strategic investments to get there.”

That’s no surprise to Kathleen Anderson, who led Holyoke’s Office of Planning and Economic Development before taking the reins at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce last year — giving her a unique dual perspective on the city’s economic progress.

“I’ve seen this coming for probably the past five years, and now it’s starting to take shape,” Anderson said. “Mayor [Michael] Sullivan did a good job laying the groundwork with the High Performance Computing Center during his administration, and now the whole Innovation District Task Force has sprung up around the center.”

She was referring to an entity, established in 2009, tasked with guiding economic growth in the ‘Innovation District,’ a series of city blocks along the downtown canals — growth that could be spurred by the computing center and other activity in a sort of economic domino effect.

For this month’s Community Profile, BusinessWest takes a look at some of those potential dominoes, and why optimism is running high in a former manufacturing city that’s writing an exciting new chapter in its proud history.

 

Creative Minds

Alex Morse

Alex Morse says city leaders want businesses, artists, and others to buy into the vision of “a different kind of Holyoke.”

Take the arts, for example. Many of the region’s communities — Northampton, Easthampton, even Springfield to some degree — value the arts, but Morse and other Holyoke leaders are giving the creative community a key seat at the economic-development table, both literally and figuratively.

Specifically, he and other officials saw so much potential in that sector that the city created the job of ‘creative economy coordinator.’ After unanimous approval of the position by the City Council last spring, Jeffrey Bianchine, a photographer who lives and works on Main Street, took that seat in the Office of Planning and Economic Development in September.

Morse said Bianchine’s roles will include connecting the various artists and cultural activities in Holyoke, forging links among creative businesses, and using the presence of arts-related enterprises to boost economic development.

“I made that my priority since the beginning of my administration,” the mayor told BusinessWest. “Jeff Bianchine is an artist, and he ‘got it’ from the minute I interviewed him.”

Bianchine said he and Marcos Marrero, the city’s planning director, have begun putting together a strategic plan to support, grow, and showcase the city’s creative-arts community, not just as a draw to Holyoke, but as a key economic driver that will bolster other industries as well.

“The state’s number-one issue is business development, and that’s what we’re starting with,” Bianchine said. “We want this to be the region’s hub for creative industries. Art is too small a term for what’s going on here. It’s about exporting product — intellectual product, cultural product.”

It’s also about making connections between artists and the overall business community, while recognizing that other career fields — such as technology and precision manufacturing — rely on a creative talent pool as well.

“That’s why my position wasn’t created as an arts and tourism director,” Bianchine said, stressing however, that members of the arts community are in particular need of sound business guidance to grow their enterprises. “It’s a problem for people in business, period. Everyone is good at what they do, and not so good at the business side. For artists, that might be a little more so.”

One effort sure to raise the profile of local artists is “Holyoke: Points of View,” a month-long celebration of the arts that runs throughout April and features art shows, photography exhibits, film studies, culinary events, and more. Details are posted at holyokepov.org, and all events are free and open to the public.

Anderson said the chamber is fully on board with the effort to boost artists, and both she and Bianchine said the creation of a separate artists’ chamber is a future possibility.

“One strategy for growth is the creative economy, and I’m responsible for helping to grow that,” she said. “We’re implementing strategies, and I think it’s a good recipe for success. The mayor’s vision regarding innovation is right on target — the whole innovative or creative economy growing in Holyoke. And we’ve gotten a few new members from the creative economy who are doing some interesting things.”

The move from City Hall to the chamber has been an interesting one, Anderson said, adding, however, that there is some overlap in the two positions, in that both are focused on the economic vibrancy of Holyoke. But the specifics obviously differ.

“I need to help provide a good climate for the businesses that are here and provide as many networking opportunities as possible to get the word out about who they are and what they do,” she noted. “We also help businesses figure out ways to save money, streamline their business practices, help them save on resources, and look at group-purchasing programs that can help them save money.”

She said the chamber has been busy providing helpful programming for businesses, such as workshops on various topics. One recent workshop focused on how businesses can best use social media, and another tackled how to strategically set up booths at tabletop events. “We’re using members as teachers, and that gets them networking with each other. People love it; they want more of these types of things.”

 

Moving Forward

They also want to see evidence that the city is moving forward, and Holyoke has provided several examples of that in recent months, from the computing center to a $1.4 million renovation of Veterans Memorial Park, set to begin this summer, to a planned $2 million train platform at Main and Dwight streets that will bring passenger rail service to the city.

City leaders also point to the ongoing, $14.5 million renovation of the city’s public library; the recently completed, $8.1 million senior center; and a $250,000 skateboard park set to open this year, as well as several residential projects, such as conversion of the former Holyoke Catholic High School property into housing.

Late last year, the Holyoke Redevelopment Authority unveiled an urban-renewal plan, which includes the city’s acquisition of 131 parcels — 92% of which are vacant — as well as a series of infrastructure upgrades and improvements, all with an eye toward spurring more private investment.

Kathy Anderson

Kathy Anderson says Holyoke’s urban-renewal plan, which encompasses both beautification efforts and the acquisition and auction of long-dormant properties, will be a catalyst for businesses looking to locate or remain in the city.

“I feel like the urban-renewal plan is extremely important to businesses,” Anderson said. “When you’re selling your home, everyone knows the drive-by is the most important thing. It’s not any different with businesses. They want to see nice sidewalks and treescapes and plantings, and no litter.”

Morse said urban renewal is a key part of a multi-pronged strategy to catalyze more private investment in the city. “We think we’ve done a good job with that.”

Holyoke has slated a public auction of properties for April — the first such auction since 1976. “It’ll be a big milestone to get some of these properties back on the tax rolls,” he said, while also taking down more dominoes in key areas of the city.

“We really support the city auctioning off properties,” Anderson added. “Many have been off the tax rolls for 20-plus years, with no income coming into the city, so let’s turn them around, get them out the door, and hopefully create some new opportunities for businesses.”

But Morse stressed that economic-development efforts in Holyoke are far from complete, and they depend on drawing more artists, entrepreneurs, and other talent into the city.

“They can be a part of creating a different kind of Holyoke,” Morse said, noting that other cities have made similar transitions from their former base (in Holyoke’s case, manufacturing) to a vibrant business and climate that resonates in the 21st century.

“But we’re original,” he added. “It’s a little more organic here, with more variety, more linguistic and cultural diversity. That’s an asset to the city; whether it’s the Latin Jazz Festival or the Puerto Rican art exhibit [opening April 25 at Open Square Mill 4], we’re able to capture the inherent diversity we have in the city in a positive way.”

In short, Morse is trying to cultivate excitement about Holyoke, and he made at least one convert in Helena Fruscio, the state’s creative economy industry director, who had effusive praise for the city’s appointment of a creative economy coordinator. “People are talking about you guys across the state,” she said at a City Council meeting last spring. “The potential is just unbelievable.”

The young mayor agrees. “We are actively focused on economic development,” he told BusinessWest, “and we feel like we’re not doing it alone; it’s truly a group effort.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com

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