HOLYOKE — Vacant mill buildings along a series of canals serve as constant reminders of this impoverished city’s halcyon days as the Paper City of the World. But the mayor has a distinctly 21st-century plan for the old factories.
Alex B. Morse imagines marijuana growing in them.
Morse, the 27-year-old wunderkind who has been in office for more than five years , believes his hometown is on the upswing, with the lowest rates of crime and unemployment in many years. But the city, with a poverty rate almost three times the state average, requires an infusion of industry. And the state’s nascent recreational marijuana business, he says, would be a perfect fit.
The argument he makes for Holyoke becoming a recreational pot hub: Growers need massive amounts of space, low-cost electricity and water, and access to transportation. Holyoke has more than 1.5 million square feet of vacant mill space downtown and some of the state’s cheapest power and water, and it is positioned on the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 91.
Holyoke needs “to capitalize on this industry in that it will create jobs, expand our tax base, increase revenue for our community,” he said in a City Hall interview.
But the notion of this hardscrabble city becoming the center of the state’s marijuana trade has drawn sharp opposition from other leaders in the community.
City Council President Kevin A. Jourdain, who opposed legalization, finds a city profiting from drug sales repugnant, and he insists economic development does not require rolling out the green carpet for legal pot dealers.
We want “to improve our reputation as sort of this downtrodden mill town to something that is progressive and upcoming and positive. We don’t want to be known as the marijuana Mecca of Massachusetts,” he said. “We can grow the community and maintain a conscience at the same time.”
That tension is playing out across Massachusetts as towns and cities consider whether to welcome or shun pot shops, cultivation facilities, infused product manufacturers, and testing operations.
Voters approved a ballot question in November that made purchase, possession, use, and home-growing of marijuana legal on Dec. 15. But legal sales and the businesses engaging in them are not likely to begin until July 2018.
In Colorado, where voters legalized marijuana in 2012, local leaders had to make a proactive decision to host commercial marijuana facilities. The Massachusetts law, on the other hand, requires cities and towns to allow marijuana facilities unless they hold a referendum and residents opt out.
Local officials can impose some limits on their own. But if they want to stop a particular type of establishment from coming to town — for example, cultivation facilities — they must go to the voters. They will also need to hold a referendum if they want to sharply limit the number of pot shops. If a city has 100 retail stores that sell alcohol, for example, it will need to go to voters if it wants fewer than 20 marijuana retailers.
While the Legislature could amend the law, the current legal landscape gives such leaders as Morse the head start in debates over whether to welcome recreational marijuana with open arms.
The mayor, who was one of the very few elected officials who backed the legalization ballot question, said he sees the marijuana industry without stigma, like any other economic development prospect.
“We’ve seen a lot of excitement from [marijuana] companies because of the makeup of our community. Compared to the eastern part of the state, the cost of doing business in Western Mass. is much more affordable,” he said. “For us, it’s manufacturing in our vacant spaces — occupying buildings, creating jobs for residents. It makes sense. If folks can challenge themselves to remove their fears and preconceived notions about this industry, I think it will be much easier to view this as an economic development opportunity.”
Pete Kadens, the chief executive of GTI Investments, a company that owns and operates medical cannabis licenses in three states — and may transition to recreational marijuana — lavished praise on Morse.
“He is a true believer in his community, and he seeks to make it business-friendly for every business, which is why we are working to be in Holyoke,” Kadens said in an e-mail. “We see and believe in his vision.”
But Jourdain says any economic development must be balanced with its social cost. Just as he would not want Holyoke to become the cigarette-making capital of the country, he doesn’t want his city to be known as the state’s commercial pot hub.
He acknowledged the will of the voters across Massachusetts, and in Holyoke, where the legalization measure passed 57 percent to 43 percent. But, he said, “to the extent that we have to have this, it will be as limited as humanly possible.”
One reason Jourdain cited is the “rampant drug problem” in Holyoke and across Massachusetts. Although the research is not conclusive, Jourdain said he believes in his heart marijuana is a gateway drug, leading users to harder drugs.
“Yes we could make an extra buck and an extra dollar of taxes, and Lord knows, we need it as a city. But I don’t want to be known as the community that is exporting a net negative” to the rest of the state, he said.
Morse, for his part, says he does not believe marijuana is a gateway drug. The bigger culprit in the state’s opioid addiction crisis, he says, is the overprescribing of painkillers.
Jourdain is not alone in his opposition to a proliferation of the marijuana industry.
Denis A. Luzuriaga, a Holyoke artist who, with his brother, is developing a mixed residential-commercial space in an old factory along a canal, said he doesn’t think Holyoke is a good fit to become the center of state’s marijuana business.
“I see Holyoke as on the verge of taking off on just about everything. What we need is all the things you would normally associate with a vibrant downtown — not medical or recreational pot businesses,” he said.
Luzuriaga emphasized he isn’t against marijuana use. But he said he sees a business such as a really good coffee shop with Wi-Fi and a welcoming ambiance as better for bringing new residents to the city and for civic engagement than several marijuana facilities or pot shops.
Walking along a canal on a recent chilly afternoon, Holyoke resident Victor M. Cruz, in his mid-80s, said he supported the idea of people being able to get marijuana for terminal illnesses. But the prospect of recreational marijuana and shops in his hometown had him worried about the impact on kids.
As wind whipped through boarded-up factories a few feet away, Cruz pondered what Holyoke welcoming pot shops might look like. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.
But Morse is taking the long view: “I think this is one of those industries that we’re going to look back — I don’t know how long it’s going to take, maybe 5 or 10 years, I hope sooner — and realize that we wasted a lot of time and money on the prohibition of marijuana.”