HOLYOKE – Mayor Alex Morse kicked off his summer series of neighborhood meetings on July 7 with the first at the Holyoke Public Library, providing residents with snapshot of the status of the city.
Morse said he began the practice last summer with 12 meetings and is planning to do the same this year.
Morse first noted the increase in both the number of a value of building permits and that 2014 was the highest in the period of 2009 to 2014.
He then detailed a number of business projects in various stages of development across the city.
• The demolition of the former Friendly’s and Holiday Inn on Whiting Farms Road and its transformation into a new $20 million hotel and retail area that should offer between 100 and 150 full time jobs.
• The expansion of Marcotte Ford, a $5 million investment that comes with a five-year tax break, helping to retain this longtime Holyoke business.
• The expansion of the Gary Rome car dealership onto the property on Whiting Farms Road that had been considered in the past for a Lowe’s and a Wal-Mart.
• A $2 million upgrade of the closed gas station on Dwight Street by Pride Convenience Inc.
• The proposed construction of a $1 million branch bank by Easthampton Savings at 170 Sergeant St.
Morse added the city has been trying to make doing business here simpler. He noted the SPARK is charged with helping to encourage entrepreneurs and that unemployment in the city is the lowest since 2008 at 6.6 percent.
Morse called the proposed Holyoke Community College Culinary and Hospitality Center as “a big win for downtown.” The $3.65 million facility is tentatively going to be on Race Street and is scheduled to open for the fall of 2016.
Also coming to the downtown area is additional housing. Morse noted the Chestnut Park complex at the former site of Holyoke Catholic High School is a $19 million project with 55 apartment units. The proposed Library Commons project would also have 55 units and the Cubit building, a combination retail and housing complex is planning for 30 units.
Morse said that city has 1.5 million square fee of vacant mill space, but it has been “seeing progress” in the reuse of that space. He said the city has been working with building owners to encourage them to make their buildings ready for redevelopment.
Morse said the city is working on getting the Parson paper site ready for redevelopment and will hopefully sell the former Automania building this yea for a new use.
The city will undertake a tourism assessment plan in light of the construction of the MGM Springfield casino, he said.
Morse also noted both the improvements made by the city’s schools as well as its on-going challenges. The city with its graduation rate at around 60 percent is still 25 points beneath the state’s rate. He called ensuring the city’s third graders reading at grade level is “one of the biggest challenges” and he added he expects to see some improvements in the 2015 scores.
Teen pregnancy has dropped 32 percent from 2010 to 2012 and Morse said there have been further declines since 2012.
“A lot of things are happening in the city,” Morse said.
Police Chief James Neiswanger also spoke at the meeting underscoring his appreciation of his 110 officers and the challenges they face every day.
He said he believes in the community-policing model but that it’s expensive, and takes time.
“It’s boots on the ground,” the chief said, meaning community policing requires officers to be in neighborhoods, meeting people and getting to know a community.
He noted that in the past year the Holyoke Police Department received 45,000 calls for service and made more than 3,000 arrests, but Neiswanger said the city is “not going to arrest our way out of our problems.”
He said that partnerships and relationships between the police, residents and others would start to address the roots of the problems that are in the city.
Neiswanger said that drugs and the need for drugs fuel 75 percent of the crime in the city.
He said his focus is removing illegal guns from Holyoke. In 2014 his officer recovered 70 illegal guns. In 2013, the number was 26.
He acknowledged with the attention paid elsewhere in the nation on controversial police actions, “It’s a tough time to be in this profession.”
Additional meeting planned at this time are July 16 at 6 p.m., at the Marian Center and July 29 at 1 p.m., at the Senior Center. For more on the “Summer Tour,” see the mayor’s blog post about last year’s tour at www.holyoke.org/news/reflections-on-the-summer-tour/.