HOLYOKE — Mayor Joshua Garcia took time to reflect on 2023 and look ahead into the new year as he sat down with Holyoke Media for an end of year discussion.

Garcia began by discussing what he felt was his biggest accomplishment in the last year, continuing to establish some sense of new pride in the city for its residents and workers.

“When we talk about a vibrant community and you try to think back at what makes a vibrant community, it’s the people and if you don’t have a community that’s prideful and feels good about where they live and are investing their time and money, then you don’t have a community,” Garcia said. “We’ve done a lot of work in trying to reestablish that sense of pride, that sense of hope and direction, so that no matter where you live in the city of Holyoke, you feel included, you feel part of the city and part of the government and feel good about where you’re investing your time and resources.”

Garcia said the advancement of the new middle school project and getting unanimous support from the City Council was another win from 2023 for the city. Garcia said while a new middle school building is on its way — replacing the old Peck School building — and is expected to be completed in 2025, efforts from the city are still focused on making improvements at Sullivan Middle School so there is not a drastic drop off between the two school buildings.

“We’re working toward making Sullivan school state of the art, too. Actually, there’s been a significant amount of investment that’s taken place in that school to give it a facelift,” Garcia said. “I remember what it looked like and how it felt before the investments. It’s a lot brighter, a lot more welcoming, but certainly there is much more we have to do.”

Garcia said Sullivan has seen exterior work done, windows and doors replaced, walkways added as well as a new basketball court over the last few years which has enhanced the building’s exterior.

He added he hopes that Sullivan school leaders can meet with consultants like the ones working on the new Peck Building to potentially put together a redesign plan of their own for renovations and improvements. Garcia compared the idea to remodeling a house and that he hopes this is an avenue all schools in the city can explore to see what improvements can be made to school buildings.

Public safety was a big priority for Garcia in 2023 and will continue to be so going forward. Following the death of an unborn child who was killed by a stray bullet that struck a pregnant woman last October, Garcia announced “Ezekiel’s Plan,” a comprehensive plan named after the child calling for $1 million in new spending, “to launch a comprehensive approach” that focused on police enforcement, additional patrol officers, tenant and neighborhood protection strategies, strengthening neighborhood outreach and engagement, and more in addressing quality of life concerns.

The plan was rejected by the City Council in December and while Garcia said he was disappointed with the decision, he is still committed to finding ways to improve public safety and overall quality of life issues within the city.

“There was a lot of misinterpretation and mischaracterization of what we were trying to achieve. I think what I was dealing with was individual councilors are looking at it through the lens they wanted to look at it through. I’ve heard a lot about, ‘the plan was over policing,’ and that ‘Ezekiel’s Plan is about giving more money to cops,’ and that’s not what the plan was. The plan was a comprehensive plan to address quality of life issues,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the police component of the plan came from much of the direct feedback he was hearing from the community as well as members of the council.

“Ezekiel’s Plan was mainly to jump-start initiatives,” Garcia added.

The plan would have also introduced a Homeless Liaison/Housing Navigator that would help protect tenant’s rights and create a space in city government to help with the challenges of housing for so many. Garcia said the intention of the position is to be proactive in helping residents and owners before problems grow too big.

“You can take an opportunity to be proactive and educate to navigate issues rather than wait until something becomes a problem. Understand that we’re a compassionate city and our level of compassion needs to go hand in hand with enforcement. The two have two work together,” Garcia said.

Garcia said his rejected plan was made up of initiatives that encompassed everything he has heard from concerned residents but he will be taking a step back to reapproach some of the initiatives he had hoped to pass through the plan in the upcoming year.

Garcia added another one of his favorite accomplishments from 2023 and a “big win” for the city was the new trash receptacles.

“I think it’s improved downtown trash issues, helped avoid work injuries with our DPW workers, there’s a level of cleanliness that we haven’t seen in a long time so I was very thrilled about what’s happening with our trash situation,” Garcia said.

Looking ahead to 2024, Garcia said he looks forward to working more with the new City Council and is already setting up his one-on-one meetings with each councilor to discuss priorities for the city.

“The council is my way of trying to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the community. I try to understand and put things in motion,” Garcia said.

Garcia said he sees himself more as the “city manager” than the title of mayor based on his career experience and is still passionate about serving the city of Holyoke through a revitalization effort. He added for 2024 he also hopes work continues on the new school building.

Garcia said a big project in the works to get started in the new year is the beginning process for a High and Maple Street reconstruction project, which will start with the city starting a community engagement process.

“It’s through the TIP [Transportation Improvement Program] where we’re looking at a timeline of roughly four years, where all of High and Maple is going to get reconstructed. So, we’re talking about streets, sidewalks, protected bike lanes, green space with trees. We’re going to get a facelift,” Garcia said. “Soon we should be kicking off a community engagement process to start soliciting input from the public. We’ll be doing that and we’re also going to be kicking off our comprehensive planning process. It’s not going to be done in 2024, but that community engagement is going to be all year long for the Master Planning process.”

Garcia also hinted updated news should soon be coming regarding the Victory Theater renovation project that has garnered a lot of excitement in the city.

Another goal of 2024 was getting new recycling toters out to residents.
As the new year is under way, Garcia said he is looking forward to another year as mayor and hopes to continue the upward trend with his colleagues across the city.

“Progress is messy. You come together, you figure it out,” Garcia said. “Ezekiel’s Plan didn’t get passed. As much as I wanted to kick and scream – and I cried, I did cry — but as much as I wanted to kick and scream, that’s government. That’s the process. I took a step back and said OK, took bits and pieces of what I heard and came up with a new idea of how we’re going to navigate the next steps to move forward.”

tlevakis@thereminder.com | + posts