Holyoke evolves ‘globalized and knowledge-based economy’ (Guest viewpoint)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our communities, the need for socioeconomic recovery strategies remains a top priority for us all. The public health measures necessary to mitigate a higher death toll have also led to a reduction in labor participation, employment, worker productivity and overall production.

Like other municipalities, the city of Holyoke has launched a myriad of programs to help ease these problems: emergency grant support to small businesses; monetary relief to residents at risk of eviction; expanding internet access for nonconnected households; and organizing “learning pods” to socialize instruction and care for children during parts of the school day while observing public health best-practices.

But the sustained, widespread national impact of the virus has also modified the economic landscape, requiring relatively swift actions by urban policy makers everywhere. In Holyoke, we are no stranger to this kind of reinvention. For the past few years, the city has been in the midst of an economic repositioning into a modern, globalized and knowledge-based economy.

Commonly known to outsiders for its poverty, crime and blight, Holyoke became home of the largest urban renewal plan in the commonwealth, improved its standing as a place once more worthy of large investments, with increasing job opportunities and neighborhoods that offer a great quality of life. 2021 presents new challenges and possibilities for us.

First, businesses with models that are apt to be performed partially or completely remote have been able to continue producing, and a few fare better today than before. In some cases, companies are realizing that they can continue to provide flexible work site opportunities to their employees and are going partially or fully remote with some positions. Folks working for those companies have had a better opportunity to remain economically resilient during the pandemic.

Communities like Holyoke aren’t as lucky, with a large sector of its residents employed in personal services or retail, leaving them more exposed to health and economic displacement risks from the pandemic.

Helping local businesses to retool their models and continue operating in a more enclosed and distant world remains a high priority – for 2021 and beyond, should such dislocations endure or repeat. Holyoke has sought to leverage the business grant funds to prioritize businesses that have thought in such ways.

Second, the increase in remote work means more people are choosing to relocate away from dense and hyper-expensive urban centers of major metropolitan cities, such as New York or Boston, and towards areas like Western Massachusetts. The increased demand on housing from these relocations, already in short supply throughout the state and particularly in our Pioneer Valley, creates further pressures to accelerate new housing stock construction in Holyoke and beyond. The incoming wave of residents from major metropolitan areas with high purchasing power represents both an opportunity to further develop our communities, but also a potential threat.

Gains for new arrivals and existing privileged residents should not come at the sacrifice of some existing residents who do not have the financial means to survive a drastic increase in living costs. The need for more workforce housing in our city and area has never been more apparent than during this crisis.

Lastly, the trend for more remote work and relocation of skilled workers to our region will make possible new business ventures in Holyoke and our area which have been unlikely to take root in the past.

For example, the life sciences and pharmaceutical field is tightly located throughout the Boston metropolitan area, where these industries can find a broad pool of highly skilled workers.

Today, Holyoke is becoming a cluster of cannabis growing and product manufacturing, processes that aren’t all that dissimilar from other food and drug production that occur further east.

It is possible that in the not-too-distant future, Western Massachusetts – along with its lower living costs and proximity to several large markets – can find itself in the position of having enough highly skilled workforce to be an attractive location for pharmaceutical manufacturing expansion. This would aid in increasing the regional economic parity in Massachusetts, where economic gains in recent decades have been heavily weighted towards Boston.

2020 has been the toughest year for this generation, and, while 2021 promises to be better, most of us are still in the midst of the worst social and economic turmoil of our lives. As municipal leaders, our call to action is not only to find our way out of these difficult times, but also to improve our communities’ resilience into the future.

Alex B. Morse is mayor of the city of Holyoke. To learn more about the city, visit the municipal website, Holyoke.org.