Cultivating Economic Development in Holyoke
January 28, 2018 : Banker and Tradesman, by Steve Adams
Insiyah Mohammad Bergeron is MassDevelopment’s newest transformative development initiative (TDI) fellow. A recent graduate of Massachusetts Instititute of Technology’s master’s program in city planning, she’s been working in downtown Holyoke since mid-2017 to advance economic development in a small, walkable downtown district. Bergeron’s position is jointly funded by MassDevelopment and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech). MassDevelopment embedded TDI fellows for three-year assignments in Haverhill, Lynn and Springfield in 2015 and Brockton, New Bedford and Pittsfield in 2016. Mohammad Bergeron received her master’s in city planning from MIT last May and previously worked at New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, where she researched adaptive reuse of rural former prison sites.
Q: What spurred your interest in the TDI position?
A: I was very intrigued by the program when I met the director, Anne Haynes. She did a presentation at an economic development practicum that I did at MIT. My husband grew up in South Hadley and his grandmother grew up in Holyoke, so this is a familiar community to us and we were thinking of moving here eventually. And it all worked out nicely. It was a natural fit for us.
Q: What was the focus of your graduate thesis work?
A: I did my thesis on adaptive reuse of prison properties, particularly at two sites one in Fulton County in upstate New York and Scotland County in North Carolina. They’re both far from big population centers and I was interested because I thought they were harder sites to repurpose. In New York, the first (plan) was actually a medical marijuana producer which is very interesting from a criminal justice perspective. That’s where a lot of the people were incarcerated and what they were incarcerated for. It’s ironic that it’s being converted for that kind of use. It ties into the work in Holyoke as medical marijuana operations look to site their operations here.
Q: What partnerships have you formed with existing local organizations?
A: I collaborate with the SPARK entrepreneurship program that’s part of the Chamber of Commerce. The Small Business Ecosystem is a group that provides assistance to small businesses and startups in all kinds of ways: a small business development center, a couple of banks that lend to small businesses, Holyoke Community College and nonprofits. It provides assistance to folks graduating from SPARK and are ready to start looking for brick-and-mortar space in the city. The TDI has a dedicated program through SPARK to provide buildout grants. We can provide up to $5,000 for a space within the boundaries of the TDI.
Q: What are the opportunities for housing development in the TDI district?
A: The Hotel Jess is a property next to the train station and MassDevelopment just put out an RFP to look for developers for that property which has been vacant for many years. It’s sort of on its last breath. It’s privately owned but the idea is that if MassDevelopment finds the right team, we would buy it and turn it over to the new team. It’s a way of accelerating the development process.
The property is important because it’s in a critical location on Main Street next to the train station, and we’re hoping to find someone to activate the first floor maybe as a restaurant. And the remaining space would be residential. The request for proposals is being reviewed by MassDevelopment. Right now there’s not a ton of train traffic down there, but the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission is pushing for increased rail service. When that happens, it’s going to be very visible as you get off the train.
Q: What would you consider the highlights of your first six months in Holyoke?
A: One thing I’m working on is how to draw attention to all the great work that’s already happening. When you have large mill buildings and there’s 500,000 square feet but only 100,000 square feet is activated, how do you show that change is on the horizon? We have a nice concentration of businesses and I’m starting to plan for April or May an “Innovation Week” where we bring out the connections between the things people are doing and a series of hands-on experiences and workshops, to meet the people and what’s happening in Holyoke.
What TDI cities tend to grapple with is the perception of decay or nothing happening, or in Holyoke specifically, a perception of crime and unsafety. I walk everywhere and work here every day and I’ve never had an issue. To me, this is a place I love and I want to invite other people into that experience.
Bergeron’s Five Favorite Flavors: