Holyoke Mayor Visits UMass

By Mary Reines

Zoe Mervine/Collegian

Alex Morse is 23 years old.  He’s the first in his family to graduate from college.  And he’s the current mayor of Holyoke.

On Nov. 8, 2011, Morse won the mayoral post in Holyoke, beating incumbent Elaine Pluta.

“If you believe in yourself … run a positive campaign … you’ll get the votes,” Morse told an audience at the University of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod Lounge during a talk last Thursday.

In 2011, Morse, who is openly gay, graduated from Brown University, where he focused on urban studies and urban public policy.  He spent a semester abroad in the Dominican Republic and interned with former mayor of Providence, R.I., and current U.S. Rep. David Cicilline.

Upon graduation, Morse returned to his hometown of Holyoke – where he served as president of his high school class – and pulled together all his friends and family to begin his campaign for mayor.  He spent five months knocking on the doors of Holyoke’s 14 voting precincts.

Morse said that some residents “never once before had a candidate knock on their door and asked what they thought.”  His campaign became “more about building personal relationships, one-on-one contact,” he said.

Morse talked about the adversity he faced while campaigning, saying that his signs sometimes got stolen or vandalized.

“I had to be on high alert,” he said, but noted that the experience also brought him closer to his supporters.

“In a really special way, it brought my family together,” he said. They would “come out and hold signs and donate to the campaign … other people in the city never felt like they belonged in the political process [before],” he said.

Morse said his campaign focused on improving Holyoke’s image.

“We ran a positive campaign … more about changing the perception of Holyoke,” he said.

Since becoming mayor, Morse said that he’s learned a lot on the job.

“The job of mayor is one that you don’t leave when you leave the office … it’s 24/7,” he said.  “There’s really no manual for it, you really learn as you go.”

Morse hopes to improve Holyoke’s economic development by retaining the city’s current businesses, recruiting new businesses and reforming the whole process.  He said he wants to create more flexible tax incentives and support “the people and businesses that already exist within the city.“  He also hopes to create “an economy around art, innovation and technology.”

One project that Morse is involved in is the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which is a facility in Holyoke that collaborates research between its partners – Boston University, Harvard University,  MIT, Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts.

Other municipal projects Morse said he’s involved with include an $8 million senior center, which will include a fitness center, a technology room and “plenty of windows for our senior citizens” Morse said.  He hopes to open the new center by late October.

Morse also said he has $2 million secured for a new railway platform at the bottom of Main and Dwight Streets in Holyoke, which will be completed by spring 2014.  He said that he wants to “attract the workforce from beyond our borders to come into the city.”

Morse also hired a new director of development and planning who will be moving into the city next week.  Morse wants to focus on improving four downtown neighborhoods, for the next five, 10, 15 and 20 years.  He’s working on obtaining approval from the city council for his urban renewal plans.

Morse said he’s also turning his attention to the artists in the area.  He hired a creative economy director to promote culture and art in Holyoke, calling the position “an important investment.” He said that he has “a couple of years to measure the efficiency of that person in the economic development office.”

In the city’s public schools, Morse said he wants to improve students’ success.  He said he believes that Holyoke faces severe challenges, and he recently launched a search for a new superintendent for schools.  He’s looking for “somebody that’s really going to do something different around our schools,” he said.  There are “hundreds of young people every year that don’t graduate,” and he wants to start “saving the young people before it’s too late.”

Morse said he wants to implement more business and community involvement in the city’s school system. And he said he also want to focus intensely on the reformation of the city’s vocational school.

Additionally, Morse said that he’s making the literacy rate of students in Holyoke a top priority.

“Only 23 percent of third-graders are proficient,” he said.  “We need to make sure that we’re engaging parents. … Be it in English or Spanish, they need to read to their kids at least 20 minutes a day.”

Morse put aside $100,000 for a community literacy coordinator and hopes to raise the proficient literacy rate of third-graders to 85 percent by 2013.  He recently established a literacy office at City Hall.

Morse called the position of mayor “a unique job.”

“In the immediate moments, as mayor you’re able to help people,” he said.

“I’m constantly in contact with people… helping people out,” Morse added.  “It doesn’t feel like a job for me.”

Mary Reines can be reached at [email protected]