Holyoke mayoral hopefuls lay out priorities at economic forum

  • Michael Sullivan, William Glidden, Gloria Caballero Roca, Rebecca Lisi, Devin Sheehan, Christopher Kosinksi, Joshua Garcia during the Holyoke mayoral debate held at the High school Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Sullivan, William Glidden, Gloria Caballero Roca, Rebecca Lisi, Devin Sheehan, Christopher Kosinski and Joshua Garcia during the Holyoke mayoral debate held at the high school Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Sullivan, William Glidden, Gloria Caballero Roca, Rebecca Lisi, Devin Sheehan, Christopher Kosinksi, Joshua Garcia during the Holyoke mayoral debate held at the High school Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2021 9:54:59 PM

HOLYOKE — Seven candidates running to become Holyoke’s next mayor tried to separate themselves from the pack Thursday during the first and only debate before city voters decide which two will move on to the general election in November.

Thursday’s event was billed as the first debate to feature all candidates who will appear on the ballot for the Sept. 21 preliminary election. However, the format of the event featured different questions for each candidate, with no back-and-forth discussion between them.

The candidates are: School Committee member Devin Sheehan; academic and educator Gloria Caballero Roca; at-large city councilors Rebecca Lisi and Michael Sullivan; city resident Christopher Kosinski; writer William Glidden, a former aide to former mayor Alex Morse; and Joshua Garcia, the town administrator of Blandford.

The debate was hosted by the Greater Holyoke Chamber and the Holyoke Taxpayers Association. Business owners and developers asked the first round of questions, followed by members of the hosting organizations and Jordan Hart, the executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber. Economic development and bringing businesses into Holyoke were the focus of the questions.

Gloria Caballero Roca

Caballero Roca, who drew attention to the fact that no Spanish-language interpretation was offered for the debate despite the city’s large Spanish-speaking population, focused her answers on investing in human capital in the city.

“Anything related to economics and economic development cannot stand by the same thing — business as usual,” she said. “Business has to be focused on the small-scale, local businesses where we stop incentivizing … corporations and just start giving those tax incentives to small-scale businesses.”

Caballero Roca said that to address unemployment, she would focus on building better schools and better school programs, including adult and after-school initiatives. When asked about her experience working in nonprofits, she said nonprofits support communities by helping to provide housing, food distribution and other “systems of cohesion” in cities. She said she would focus her administration’s work on people and on all things local.

“Just to focus on who we are as human beings together,” she said.

Joshua Garcia

Garcia highlighted his experience as a municipal manager. He said that Holyoke’s current form of city government is antiquated, and that he would focus on improving internal operations within City Hall.

“We have to be sure we have an internal operation infrastructure that is supporting the very activities that are looking to bring in new growth and expand economic development in Holyoke,” he said.

Garcia said that in order to attract businesses, Holyoke has to invest in itself as a community: addressing crumbling infrastructure and dealing with public safety concerns, for example. He said that in Blandford, he turned around a municipal government that was divided and poorly managing its finances. He said he sees a lot of red flags in Holyoke, such as a $2 million deficit and negative free cash balances normally used to spend on large capital projects.

“The blueprint is there, it’s just a matter of having the leadership to facilitate the necessary process to reorganize internally so that we can establish a much stronger internal control on operations,” he said.

William Glidden

Glidden said he has heard from residents that they’re tired of the city’s political dysfunction, and that he plans to build solidarity across communities. Asked how he plans to support taxable business growth in town, he said he’s opposed to the school of thought that immediate revenue is needed “no matter whether it’s a landfill in the quarry or you tear down Lynch School and put a strip mall there.”

“Holyoke is worth investment,” he said. “Our assets are valuable and we shouldn’t be trading them away in the interest of any short-term benefit that costs us in the long term.”

Glidden said that his management style would be collaborative, and that he would seek to provide a positive vision for “how all the dots connect” while surrounding himself with a team that can facilitate those ideas. He said the next mayor should think about reorganizing the city’s Finance Department by centralizing the finance offices under a finance director.

“So the mayor has oversight and can make sure the financial offices are running more efficiently and effectively,” he said.

Christopher Kosinski

Kosinski, who has yet to hit the campaign trail or put out campaign materials detailing his vision for the city, spoke about his experience in marketing, sales and negotiation. He stressed the importance of education.

“To bring business in, I think some of the things we have to concentrate on are education,” he said, adding that crime needs to be addressed in Holyoke.

Kosinski said he would want to see city departments better communicating with each other, and would bring those departments together and then go out to the city to gather input from residents about what their priorities are.

“We want them to tell us what they want us to do,” he said. “You as business people, you’re going to tell me.”

Rebecca Lisi

Lisi’s message was largely about her 14 years on the City Council, and in particular her policies to revitalize Holyoke’s downtown. She said she has a reputation as a councilor who does her homework, and returned several times to the concept of “smart growth” — a zoning overlay that allows for infill development in the city’s urban core.

“If we can develop the urban core, we’re going to be able to make our downtown safer, cleaner and more pedestrian-friendly,” she said.

Lisi said she has supported the booming cannabis industry in the city because it is a good fit for the city, and that she’d like to see Holyoke pursue more tech and computing businesses, too. She also touted her efforts in the City Council to bring about an independent assessment of the Holyoke Police Department as a way to keep the city safe.

“I think we all know that policing is changing, the way that we deal with public safety is changing, and so I think we need to be ready for some pivots in how we deal with community policing,” she said.

Devin Sheehan

Sheehan said he is running to address quality of life issues and to restart the city’s economy after the coronavirus pandemic. He said he would bring the city’s planning and economic development department into City Hall, would work to tie education into economic development through job training, and would develop a marketing plan to attract businesses to the city’s low energy rates and natural resources.

“To make Holyoke the place to be when you want to open a business and the place where you can get through some of the barriers we have put in place,” he said.

On the question of bonding to build a new middle school, Sheehan said that has to be done “within our means” — without asking taxpayers to carry that burden, as happened in 2019 when voters rejected a tax hike to build two new schools.

“We cannot continue to put more onto the back of taxpayers,” he said. “We went through that.”

Michael Sullivan

Sullivan cited his experience as a businessman, noting that he has a background in revitalizing buildings downtown and knows the city’s infrastructure needs. Those needs, he said, include replacing aged water mains and sewer lines. His vision is one of growth and rebuilding, he said.

“We need to expand our green energy footprint and capitalize on that,” he said. “And we’ve got to take back control of our schools.”

Sullivan said he took issue with the Planning Board extending hearings for proposed projects, some of which have been denied. He said Planning Board members, whom the mayor appoints, need to make things easy and welcoming for businesses. He called for an end to the natural gas moratorium in Holyoke, while also saying the city needs to lead on green energy.

“We’ve got to use this to capitalize on it to draw new business into Holyoke,” he said.

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

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