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Funding to ‘SPARK’ business development, entrepreneurship

Date: 5/23/2014

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE – Janet Crespo Santana, a culinary arts instructor and Dean Technical High School, knows her sofrito – the pepper-based ingredient that is a staple of Latino cooking – is a good product. She currently sells it to 30 clients, but she readily admitted she needs access to the professional kitchen and a business mentor to bring her sofrito to its full market potential.

Santana was one of the Holyoke entrepreneurs who spoke at a meeting with Boston Federal Reserve Bank President Eric Rosengren on May 20. Rosengren was in the city meeting with Mayor Alex Morse and Chamber of Commerce officials as part of the Working Cities Challenge grant award to the city by the Boston Fed.

Gerardo Ramos explained that out of his love for the ocean and his childhood experiences in Puerto Rico, he has developed a business in Holyoke that grows coral, which is used in saltwater aquarium tanks. He has had success selling the living coral to pet stores and he said, “It’s a market out there that is crazy.” 

With the money he has earned he has made three trips to Puerto Rico restoring the coral reef he knew as a boy.

Ramos said though he is facing a number of changes. He has a lack of formal education – he’s a self-taught marine biologist – and he received no help in applying to the permits he needs to sell the coral. He said that cultural bias is also a real problem.

“We need encouragement, not judgment,” he said. 
Rosengren said that he had “very engaged discussion” with business people and city officials during the day. He explained the Boston Fed’s involvement in trying to understand how to make an impact in reducing “concentrated poverty” started years ago.

He explained that economists looked at statistics coming from communities that had seen a positive reversal of fortunes, but what they discovered was that success “wasn’t about the numbers.”

He said what was typical in turn-around communities was “a common vision in the community.”

Holyoke was selected out of the 20 applicants for Working Cities Challenge, which will give the city $250,000 divided over three years. The program is designed to increase the collaborative leadership in Massachusetts smaller cities and to support work to improve the lives of low-income people in those cities.

In Holyoke, the monies will be used to fund the SPARK Initiative (Stimulating Potential, Accessing Resource Knowledge), which will help make business development easier by linking it to adult basic education resources to produce an entrepreneurship and micro-enterprise assistance program.

Rosengren said the fact the Holyoke application stressed helping entrepreneurship within the city’s Innovation district and among Latinos made it different. 

“It’s very exciting to use entrepreneurship as a topic,” he said. 

He noted the $250,000 award is not permanent funding and that if successful the SPARK Initiative will be self-funded in the future.