HOLYOKE — It’s been a tough slough for this city on the Connecticut River ever since the last of the mills left in the 1990s. But when five universities and two high-tech companies opened a supercomputing center less than four years ago, there were hopes that others would also see Holyoke’s potential.
There are about a dozen projects in various stages of planning downtown, according to the city. They include a $5 million renovation of the Cubit building — where Holyoke Community College will base its culinary program and a developer is proposing to build 18 market-rate residential units — and a $38 million overhaul being considered by Boston-based WinnCompanies of the former Farr Alpaca wool complex into some 100 market-rate and income-restricted apartment units.
Marcos Marrero, the director of Holyoke’s Office of Planning and Development, estimates that developers have spent or disclosed plans to spend $112 million for construction and rehabilitation projects downtown since the opening of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which incurred almost $90 million in land, infrastructure, and building costs. In addition, about $14 million in public funds has gone into projects such as the Holyoke Canal Walk.
“When the computing center was announced, that neighborhood was in dire need of rehabilitation,” Marrero said. “We have small to large developers taking this on.”
The efforts to revive Holyoke have a long way to go. Abandoned buildings still litter the fledgling Innovation District around the supercomputer center. And the facility just doesn’t provide the same level of economic boost expected from the $950 million MGM casino-hotel project being built in Springfield, eight miles down Interstate 91.
Holyoke is among the Commonwealth’s poorest communities, with almost a third of its 39,000 residents living below the poverty line in 2014, nearly three times the state rate, according to the US Census Bureau. More than 14 percent of Holyoke residents over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree, compared with just below 23 percent statewide. Nearly half of all households earn an annual income of less than $35,000 in a state where the median income is almost $68,000.
But progress is being made, and supercomputers were the spark.
The center is a joint endeavor of Boston University, Harvard University, MIT, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts. Funding for construction was provided by the five universities and grants from Cisco Systems Inc., EMC Corp., the state, and the federal New Markets Tax Credit program. The schools teamed up to provide themselves and others with access to massive computing power to drive research into everything from designing drugs to climate change. They chose Holyoke in part for its cheap real estate and its electricity costs, lowest in the state.
An analysis of the computing center’s economic impact on the city has not been completed, the Planning Department’s Marrero said. However, Holyoke has benefited from its heavy use of local utilities, the $80,000 it pays in taxes, and scholarships for public school students.
Even before the center opened, a group of about a dozen officials from local, state, and regional institutions and government bodies along with representatives of the computing center began meeting on a regular basis to plan how they could leverage the computing center into growth for the city. Dubbed the Kitchen Cabinet, the group has undertaken efforts including advocating for the city and organizations seeking funds for development projects, and matching developers with sites.
But an emphasis on human capital is a main driver in establishing a successful innovation-based economy in Holyoke, said Katie Stebbins, assistant secretary for innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship at the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. Investing in education and support of residents and local entrepreneurs is necessary to sustain growth, she said.
The quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative hired Stebbins, a private consultant at the time, to implement plans for the innovation district after the group found several areas of opportunity for economic development in Holyoke. Including locals in the mix is as important in turning the city around as drawing business into the city, Stebbins said.
The computing center began participating in community development early on, Stebbins said. It has entered into partnerships with Girls Inc., a nonprofit that provides leadership and educational programs for girls age 5 to 18; the local Boys and Girls Club, and Holyoke Public Schools, in addition to maintaining an open-door policy to community groups, for whom the computing center runs courses on computer coding and other tech-based skills.
Students at Holyoke’s middle schools will soon learn computer coding in the Middle Coding Experience, a joint initiative of the school system, which was taken over by the state last year, and the computing center, said Stephen Zrike, the state-appointed receiver for Holyoke schools.
“They’ve proven themselves very early on to be very willing to be collaborative and work with us,” Zrike said.
Separately, 37 people on Tuesday graduated from the SPARK Entrepreneurship Program, an initiative that aims to link the computing center and innovation district with Holyoke residents, especially the Latino population. The course, which is led by Greater Holyoke Chamber Centennial Foundation, started last summer with a $250,000 Boston Federal Reserve Working Cities Challenge Grant.
Early development and programs offered to city residents is undoubtedly beneficial, said Robert Nakosteen, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies the Western Massachusetts economy. But it’s unlikely that Holyoke’s Innovation District can become a big driving force behind a turnaround of the city, he said.
Holyoke’s economy was planned in the 19th century for the textile industry, and when the textile market largely moved south, paper producers moved in. By the middle of the century, paper producers began migrating south or overseas for cheaper land, labor, and power. That left the city with hollowed-out mills and all the problems associated with the decline of a staple industry, including rising unemployment and a shrinking population.
“I’m quite pessimistic that this is going to be a game changer,” Nakosteen said. Holyoke also lacks the intellectual infrastructure that comes from proximity to major universities.
“I think this is a good solid development in Holyoke, and I think it’ll have a salutatory effect, small as it may be, but I don’t see a turnaround,” Nakosteen said.
People on the ground express guarded optimism.
Since 2012, Gateway City Arts, a co-working space, has hosted about 20,000 guests for concerts, art classes, and community events each year in a wide-open first-floor room with hard wood flooring, high ceilings, and a kitchen, co-owners Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta said. Office space on their second floor is at capacity, with a jewelry designer, puppet makers, and a picture framing business among the tenants.
They expect to receive a $75,000 MassDevelopment grant to build a co-working kitchen, which could host up to eight food-based startups.
With Western Massachusetts’ manufacturing infrastructure, Kruta said, Holyoke can serve as an incubator where entrepreneurs work out prototypes that they can bring to a local company for production.
Although they have enjoyed early success in attracting small business and entrepreneurs, Divine and Kruta are still waiting for that one large company to move in and make their venture profitable.
“We would love to have people who believe in what we’re doing, ” Divine said. “We are here to build the creative economy,” Kruta added.