Foundation rescinds $275K grant for Holyoke

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/9/2020 12:38:45 PM

HOLYOKE — The Barr Foundation has rescinded a $275,00 clean energy planning grant it had offered the city.

On May 5, the City Council voted on first reading to accept the grant, but with only seven of the 13 city councilors in favor of accepting it. The council didn’t have the two-thirds majority needed to accept it on second reading, delaying a final decision.

The grant came up again on June 2, and At-Large Councilor Peter Tallman said he had changed his mind and now opposed the grant. The City Council tabled a decision for a second time, with councilors expressing a desire to hear from leadership of the city’s municipal utility.

After that further delay, the Barr Foundation informed the city on Friday that it had rescinded the money.

“The Barr Foundation regrets that the Holyoke City Council has voted to not accept the $275,000 grant referenced above which was awarded on December 3, 2019, with a start date of December 20, 2019,” a letter from the Barr Foundation states. “This letter will serve as official notification that grant has been rescinded.”

The announcement comes after some city councilors had raised objections to the role that the grassroots organization Neighbor to Neighbor would play in the clean energy project. Neighbor to Neighbor, which organizes against environmental and racial injustice, received its own separate, $125,000 grant to do outreach to city residents with the goal of ensuring that underrepresented voices would help shape what an energy transition looked like.

Neighbor to Neighbor had held a protest in October 2018 at the Suffolk Street headquarters of Holyoke Gas & Electric, or HG&E, over the proposed extension of a natural gas pipeline. 

Some councilors took issue with that protest. Some opposed to the grant argued that it would give Neighbor to Neighbor too much control instead of allowing HG&E to lead the process as a formal partner. At-Large Councilor Mike Sullivan even compared the grant to a “Trojan Horse” at the council’s June 2 meeting.

In addition to Sullivan and Tallman, the other council members opposed to the grant were Ward 2 Councilor Terence Murphy, Ward 3’s David Bartley, Ward 5’s Linda Vacon, and At-Large Councilor James Leahy. Ultimately, the issue was tabled, with councilors calling for HG&E leadership to weigh in on the grant and for the formation of a project manager selection committee.

In a phone interview, Neighbor to Neighbor Organizing Director Elvis Méndez said that he was disappointed with the outcome. Neighbor to Neighbor will still receive its own grant, but will now have to do its outreach work differently. He said those opposed to the city’s grant seemed to be misinformed about its purpose and how it would function.

“I think this really represents a sad failure for folks who wanted to see a project that would unite residents across different experiences in the common goal of re-imagining and rebuilding their city,” Méndez said. “This would have hopefully set us up for the work of actually building together what that future could look like. Unfortunately, misinformation won out.”

In a statement, Mike Bloomberg — the mayor's chief of staff and the co-author of the grant — noted that the rescinding of the grant came hours after more than 1,000 people came together in Holyoke to protest police violence and systemic racism.

“That at the heart of many councilors’ rejection of this grant was that the city and Barr Foundation insist we partner with an organization in Neighbor to Neighbor that fights against these injustices every day, is an inexcusable problem,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg also took issue with HG&E, which he said “stood silent” and failed “to acknowledge or speak up on the necessary role of community engagement when it comes to energy distribution and consumption.” 

At the June 2 City Council meeting, there was confusion among city councilors around what HG&E’s actual position on the grant was. Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos said he spoke with HG&E Manager Jim Lavelle, and that Lavelle told him he didn’t have any concerns about the grant. Tallman, though, said he was changing his own vote to oppose the grant because of conversations he had with Lavelle, business leaders and several residents.

“The detrimental effect this could possibly have on residents and businesses got me to a point where I, as this grant is written, I would have a difficult time voting for it,” Tallman said.

In a phone interview with the Gazette, Lavelle said that HG&E did not oppose the grant. He said the utility would have been happy to work with the city to the extent that the grant aligned with their own objectives. He also noted that HG&E has a network of partners it already works with on clean energy projects and that those projects include millions of dollars in ongoing grant activity.

“We’ve been working on a carbon reduction plan for many years,” Lavelle said. “And we’ve made great progress.”

When asked about partnering with Neighbor to Neighbor, Lavelle noted that he had only said he felt comfortable partnering with the city.

“We serve every constituent in the city. We don’t typically get involved in activist group work — Neighbor to Neighbor or any activist group,” Lavelle said. “As a municipal utility, we listen to all of our customers. It’s not that we’re not sensitive to any customer’s interests or inquiries, it’s just that we serve the entire population of Holyoke.”

Dusty Christensen could be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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