Holy-toke? Western Mass. City Mayor Sees Opportunity in Pot

Maybe it’s because he is of a different generation. Maybe he is an opportunist desperate to succeed or maybe his is a visionary. Whatever 27-year old Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is, he certainly wants his city to reek, uh, reap the benefits of the new Massachusetts law legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

Holyoke, not unlike my Berkshire home town of Lee, is a former paper mill mecca. But unlike Lee which reinvented itself as a tourism destination of choice, Holyoke’s aging mills and series of canals that served them, lie dormant as hulking unused, wastes of space.

Morse sees opportunity in marijuana. On [rolling] paper, it looks promising. Growth of the nascent pot business would rely on a number of factors including reasonable prices of energy and proximity to transportation. Holyoke has both. It’s energy rates are much less than those the eastern part of the state and the city is situated near the Mass. Pike (I-90) and I-91. It’s also not far from Springfield where a massive casino is being built.

Holyoke, Mass. has 1.5 million square feet of unused mill space in its downtown.

Holyoke, Mass. has 1.5 million square feet of unused mill space in its downtown.

The real question is whether this is the type of economic development that is good for a struggling city. Some city officials are already objecting to Morse’s idea. City Council President Kevin Jourdain tells the Boston Globe “to improve our reputation as sort of this downtrodden mill town to something that is progressive and upcoming and positive. We don’t want to be known as the marijuana Mecca of Massachusetts,” he said. “We can grow the community and maintain a conscience at the same time.”

The debate in Massachusetts in general and Holyoke in particular will soon be coming to Connecticut. With their more forward thinking neighbor to the north on board, Connecticut legislators are reacting as they are trying to do with the casino issue. State Senate President Marty Looney is backing a legalization effort that would regulate and ax the plant.

Morse sees the opportunity to utilize the vast mill space for growing pot. The city has 1.5 million square feet of vacant mill space downtown. It also has three times the rate of poverty than the state average. Then there’s the whole question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug leading to use of harder drugs and contributing to the opioid epidemic that has gripped the state.

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The Massachusetts law legalizing pot has a different twist than say, the one in Colorado. In Colorado, cities and towns have to be proactive and opt-in for the chance to host growing facilities. In Massachusetts, municipalities need to opt-out with permission from the voters in a referendum which itself is expensive for a struggling town. (Full disclosure: The Shad voted no on the legalization ballot question in Mass. this past November.)

The battle enjoined in Holyoke over pot is not unlike the one when the state approved three casino-resort licenses and one for slot parlor. Some cities and towns in the state want nothing to do with gambling. They see turning to a vice as an economic savior is not good in the long view. It may bring new jobs and tax revenue but at what cost?

Holyoke’s Mayor Morse may be getting the headlines now but it’s likely this debate will emerge across the Bay State and the Nutmeg State in years to come.