HOLYOKE — The Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce is one of 13 organizations who will share funds from MassDevelopment’s $1,625,000 in grants for small-business support programs in Gateway Cities.

The Greater Holyoke Chamber will receive $125,000 that will help enhance the aesthetic appeal of the district by supporting high-impact, low-cost improvements, including the activation of vacant surface lots and the maintenance of trash containers and pick up.

The grants were awarded through MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative, or TDI, Local program, which funds locally developed and managed small-business support programs tailored to the specific needs of individual communities.

“Our small businesses are crucial investors in our economy and workforce, contributing to the development of an inclusive economy in Massachusetts,” said Secretary of Economic Development Yvonne Hao, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s Board of Directors. “With grants from the Transformative Development Initiative program, we empower small business owners and entrepreneurs to continue to grow and bolster our Gateway City downtowns.”

MassDevelopment Holyoke TDI fellow Kevin Moforte told Reminder Publishing the program and grant is used to help accelerate any efforts of revitalization in certain areas of a Gateway City. Through the program, a MassDevelopment fellow like Moforte joins the city full time to help organize the community and business owners, in this case on High Street, in creating projects that help revitalize the area both economically and through quality-of-life improvements.

Through this round of funding, businesses in the development zone will also get funding to improve storefront lighting and acquire sidewalk tables and chairs. The funding will also help fund the pickup of trash containers in the area.

“We really wanted to address the pollution and litter problem of the downtown. Currently there are barely any trash cans downtown, there’s no regular trash pickup service, so we thought if we could make some sort of capital investment in the downtown, we would be able to really have an impact on the aspect of the district, the cleanliness of it and just make the district look a lot more appealing and addressing the litter issue,” Moforte said.

Funds will be invested in trash receptacles as well as planters to plant along the street and add to its overall quality of life. The grant also includes weekly trash pickup service for an entire year.

Moforte said part of his role and the formation of the High Street Business Association on High Street was to have a central body for the development zone and business owners in the neighborhood. The group represents the High Street neighborhood and meet, assess needs and help lead the way in creating and retaining business and other developments on High Street.

When Moforte first joined the city, he quickly identified the lack of a group or body for High Street businesses to work with in their struggles. The Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce has focus across the city as well, so the High Street Business Association was formed in partnership with the Chamber to address these specific needs and concerns.

“We started meeting monthly and there was this energy of how we can address this litter issue downtown, and when this grant came up it just seemed like a great opportunity to make these capital investments,” Moforte said. “So when this grant came along it was great, especially for this small business owner group to say look, if we can make these capital purchases and fund immediate trash pickup for a whole year, that will buy time as a growing organization to recruit more businesses, to get organized, to formalize yourself into maybe a business improvement district or a small chamber, or whatever formal constitution you want to have, and then through dues or sponsorships or whatever is decided at the end, keep the services going and promote business.”

Moforte continued, “So this is a really important step for us. As the businesses kind of get time to orgranize, they’re also going to get this huge infusion of cash to be able to make these investments and get a lot of credibility for what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Moforte said the city has a motivated and committed core group of organizers, business owners, city officials and “wonderful people” that are incredibly proud of their city and care about the revitalization of High Street. He added investments to Gateway Cities such as this focused on capital investments help jumpstart a lot of development and are crucial in creating the new vision for the city.

“As most Gateway Cities and cities that have these kind of glorious industrial pasts where once the industry left they had to reinvent themselves, they struggle a lot against disinvestment, people leaving the city, especially the downtown areas,” Moforte said. “I think this is common for a lot of Gateway Cities. We need heavy investments in housing and public spaces.”

Another portion of the project will look to take vacant spaces on High Street and create “space activation” where a community space will be established for the public. Moforte said they have been meeting with residents, small businesses, and arts and cultures communities in looking for the right way to utilize the space. He added about 25% of the grant funding will work toward activating spaces.
“We can come in as the community partnership and in partnership with the community, activate some of these spaces and create kind of like a focal point for positive community activity that will provide something fun for everybody and activate spaces in the downtown,” Moforte said.

With the continued efforts ongoing on High Street, hopes are that the stigmas surrounding the area can be broken, according to Planning and Economic Development Director Aaron Vega. When reflecting on the growth already seen over the last few years on High Street, Vega said he has seen some positive steps as more new businesses are joining the downtown space as well as quality of life improvements.

Still, he acknowledges there are some challenges the city still faces in its revitalization efforts.

“We’re trying to create a business improvement district without anyone trying to pay into it,” Vega said. “We’re trying to create what those benefits would be based on the other city’s that have these bids where there’s private companies that take care of flowers, or a private company that takes care of trash. We know our businesses on High Street can’t afford that. We don’t want to put that burden on them but we’re trying to figure out a way to get that same benefit to our businesses.”

Vega added most of it comes down to improving quality of life.

“People want to be able to walk to a restaurant and have it be lit, inviting. They want to be able to walk out of apartments if they live downtown and have it be safe. And they want the ability to know there won’t be trash on the street and things like trees or flowers are going to be taken care of,” Vega said. “It’s one thing for a city to plant trees and bushes and then they don’t get maintained. It’s all about the maintenance and that’s the key.”

Since 2015, MassDevelopment has invested $38 million in TDI districts through tools such as technical assistance, real estate investments, grant programs, and fellows who work in the district. That investment has directly influenced over $151.3 million in public and private investments in the districts and assisted in securing an additional $241.2 million.

tlevakis@thereminder.com | + posts