After breaking barrier, Holyoke’s first Latino mayor ready to focus on the basics
Josh Garcia is bringing his municipal management know-how to City Hall
WHEN JOSHUA GARCIA takes office on Monday, he will make history as Holyoke’s first Latino mayor. But he is less interested in talking about the barrier-breaking nature of his election than about the city’s $2 million budget deficit and the management problems he’s ready to take on to get the former industrial city on firmer financial footing.
Garcia says representation in government for Holyoke’s Latino population is important, but he tends to cast it in the broader context of the city’s history. He says Latinos, who now account for more than half of Holyoke’s population, are only the latest in a long line of immigrants and migrants who have landed in the Western Massachusetts Gateway City in search of a better life. That search has become much more challenging as the Paper City has seen its mills shut down, leaving vacant buildings and a high poverty rate.
Garcia himself, though born in Holyoke, is a migrant success story. His grandmother came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico when Garcia’s mother was about seven years old. His mother was born with a bone condition and was one of a handful of children the Shriners brought over from the island to treat.
Garcia will replace Alex Morse, who stepped down earlier this year after nine years to become town manager of Provincetown. He said running for mayor was a way to combine his municipal management skills with the deep commitment he feels to his hometown. “First and foremost,” says Garcia, “I’m a Holyoker.”
CommonWealth spoke to Garcia about his background and how he plans to address Holyoke’s most pressing issues. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: How did you get involved in politics?
JOSHUA GARCIA: Since I was a kid growing up in the city, I’ve always been involved in different youth programs. But never did I think I was going to be involved in local government. When I was at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, I was municipal services manager, and my role was to work with local governments up and down the Pioneer Valley with assessing inefficiencies, offering solutions to improve the quality of their services, whether it’s internal reorganizing or sharing services with other municipalities so they meet mandates. I did that for five years. That’s where I got to learn a lot of best practices and how government works in general. I landed an opportunity at Blandford, where I’ve been town administrator over three years. That’s where my experience developed to actual management and implementation, putting the ideas into practice.
CW: You’ve worked around municipal government for much of your professional life. Why run for mayor?
GARCIA: I liked my career track in town administration and I loved coming home at the end of the day to spend time with my family. When the conversation came up around running for mayor, my wife was my number one endorser. She said knowing the kind of person I am and the issues that are going on in Holyoke, a Garcia mayorship is probably bigger than our family. It was a very unselfish and humbling response from my wife. If we can get in there and make people’s lives a little better than they are now because of the influence government has in tackling quality of life issues, then it wasn’t a bad idea to do that run. The next day I went and pulled papers.
CW: As someone of Puerto Rican descent, is it significant that you’re Holyoke’s first Latino mayor?
Understand, I was born and raised in Holyoke. First and foremost, I’m a Holyoker. My message to a lot of people is, if you grew up in west Holyoke, which is more affluent, or south Holyoke, where the median income is $18,000 a year and it’s heavily Hispanic, you’re a Holyoker. If you were born and raised here or moved three years ago or six months ago, that fact that you chose to invest here means you’re a Holyoker. I want to bridge gaps between neighborhoods and cultures and communities. Every corner of our city is made up of people of different income levels, the color of their skin, their culture, the language they speak, the people they love. We’re very diverse and we get one mayor. To be the guy to lead the city, it’s humbling. I’m going to do what I can to represent everyone, and to be sure, no matter where you come from or how much money you make, Holyoke is a place you can call home.
CW: Are there needs unique to Holyoke’s Latino population and how will you address those?
GARCIA: In Holyoke’s history, we’ve always had an immigrant population. Every couple of decades or so, there’s new population groups moving into the city. When I think about where Holyoke was in the 80s and 90s, the cultural clashes going on, the lack of representation…the fact the city in every corner [just] picked a Puerto Rican mayor really shows the progress that Holyoke has made. Something I’ll continue to work on is making sure that we’re achieving equity and inclusion so there’s proper representation, that those lives being impacted have a seat at the table.
I want to be sure boards and committees are reflecting the population. There’s still a cultural shift going on in our government. There’s still people who might not agree or understand that concept, and I hope to continue to facilitate those discussions with my peers so folks understand why equity and inclusion is important in making decisions on how we’re spending resources.
CW: You’re being sworn in on Monday. How do you prepare for the transition in such a short time?
GARCIA: My wife and I were planning for one child. We were blessed with two, with twins. They’re nine years old right now. When we learned we were going to have a second child, I was not prepared. But my wife and I did what we had to do to pivot and be ready and be successful in their upbringing.
I feel confident in my ability and experience to adapt to the reality we’re in, the fact we are starting Monday. I have a great core team of advisers. We’re already looking at our transition plan that we’re still building and that we’re going to continue to implement between now and the end of December as the first hit-the-ground-running immediate phase. Then what that transition plan is going to continue to look like beyond December when we talk about issues around education, public safety, infrastructure, economic development, and other important issues affecting our city.
CW: What will your priorities be on day one?
GARCIA: My immediate transition focus is on internal government, building boards and committee roles. My day one priority is to focus on budget and operations. It’s around this time communities are starting to plan for the budget process for fiscal 2023, which starts July 1. Also, operations, so departments have a governance structure to support the services they do. Making sure empty positions are filled.
CW: You’ve talked about improving Holyoke’s budget situation. What’s the problem?
GARCIA: When we talk about the different functions of our government, we talk about the trash problem in Holyoke or overtime in the police department, the quality of our schools, or conditions of infrastructure, these are all symptoms of a bigger problem. The problem is lack of oversight, accountability, and simply management. The mayor is [the] city manager. If you’ve never done the job before it’s complex. There are learning curves, and learning curves are expensive, impact services, impact the tax rate.
My focus is going to be trying to understand what inefficiencies are internally that are causing issues, and offering solutions for restructuring that will help find that proper accountability mechanism to make sure the issue is not happening again. We have a $2 million deficit the city hasn’t been able to close for some time. We have to get our internal controls in order.
CW: Holyoke schools have been under state receivership since 2015. What should be done to improve schools?
GARCIA: We’ve been in a very fortunate position to have receivers who have been collaborative with our community. We just have to communicate to the greater public what our plan is and what we’re doing, our strategic objectives that we’re measuring every year to make sure we’re on the path to local control. I look forward to doing what I can to communicate to the public our programs so we’re making sure the end goal here is not only to improve outcomes, but to regain local control, because that’s very important that communities have autonomy controlling their own future and their own destiny.
CW: How are Holyoke businesses doing, and what should be done to help businesses recover from the pandemic?
GARCIA: In the pandemic, Holyoke was the only municipality in the region that opened six new restaurants when other restaurants everywhere else were shutting down. Folks are coming to Holyoke.
The businesses I speak with, there is frustration that you’ve got Holyoke that wants new growth, new revenue, we want people to invest here, but people don’t feel their city’s investing in them. It’s time, money, sweat, equity that businesses are putting into their establishments. Most often government bureaucracy is making it difficult for them to succeed or want to stay here.
Holyoke is in a competitive position. We’re geographically located in a convenient space in the region, we have low energy rates and low water rates, there’s lots of space here to move into. As mayor, I need to be sure we have the internal capacity and infrastructure to help people navigate what it is they need to do. I’ve heard about issues around permitting, bureaucracy and bottlenecking around departments, questionable enforcement. They’re all symptoms of a bigger problem, having the proper oversight to ensure there are efficiencies and we’re eliminating any red tape that’s limiting people’s potential growth in our city.
CW: Your predecessor was very welcoming to the cannabis industry, trying to make Holyoke an industry center. What role do marijuana companies have in the Holyoke economy?
GARCIA: It’s a big role. That’s one tool in the toolbox. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket, we’ve got to diversify, but it’s a booster. If folks are traveling to Holyoke to go to a dispensary, that can potentially support cafes and restaurants opening up nearby. If you’re talking about cultivation, you’ve got workers that are coming to work in the marijuana business that have lunch or may want to go out after work or may want to shop in the area. What we’re seeing take shape in Holyoke with the marijuana industry –we should continue to cultivate and build that, but also spread that to other potential interests and opportunities.
CW: Are there any industries you have your eye on?
GARCIA: We have a lot of empty mill buildings here. We have a track record of converting buildings to mixed use spaces whether for industry or business. Affordable housing is a big one. If we can increase our density downtown, the businesses are going to go where the people are. It’s also going to create more safety in certain areas. If we can convert old mill buildings to a combination of affordable housing and a little bit of market rate, we start diversifying that and increase density downtown, that’s another tool in the toolbox to contribute to the economic ecosystem of Holyoke.
CW: Holyoke has a high poverty rate. How will you address poverty?
GARCIA: It’s been about 30 percent for a long time. First and foremost, we can invest in our youth through programming and maybe job opportunities. Growing up in Holyoke, there were a lot of different youth programs that kept many of us engaged and off the streets. Mine was Nueva Esperanza and Boys and Girls Club. We don’t see much of that, if at all, happening today. If I can direct resources to support sports and programs, that’s going to be a benefit as far as the long-term is concerned.
There’s a lot of opportunity we’re already seeing taking place before us to empower neighborhoods, to create more mixed income housing opportunities in neighborhoods. We’ve just got to continue to cultivate that and engage residents. In the neighborhood I grew up in, there’s $18,000-a-year median household income. As people’s lives improve, the family in low-income housing, their children go to college, become young professionals, there isn’t market rate housing, there isn’t opportunities for them to stay in the neighborhood. We have to mix it up a bit so kids like me don’t have to move out of the neighborhood, [so] there’s suitable housing for the next phase of my life and my family’s life in the neighborhood.
As we start leveraging growth and development, there will hopefully be more opportunities for jobs to lift folks out of poverty. It’s going to be important that we leverage any creative way we can to partner and share resources and advocate at a state and federal level to support these quality of life buckets. This is why advisory councils will be important, so we’re strategically tackling issues in a way that will lift neighborhoods, improve services, quality of life, and lift the poverty status of families and individuals.
CW: How will you measure success at the end of your first term?GARCIA: Certainly that $2 million deficit, looking at whether or not we’ve been able to close or eliminate it. Another good way of measuring success is by how much free cash [money unspent at the end of the year] becomes available. Healthy communities use free cash for one-time capital expenses so they don’t have to raise it through taxation or borrow money and collect interest for buying a truck at the DPW or fixing the roof on a public building.
There are ARPA funds that are being rolled out to respond to the negative impacts of COVID. I think by looking at the progress Holyoke is making, however we distribute the funds, there’s an opportunity there to determine how well we’re doing, whether or not we’re moving the needle a little bit. If your revenue increased because of new growth, development, housing, businesses moving into the city, that’s another good way to measure your progress. We’ll be looking at each of those to make sure we’re not wasting time, we’ve hit our targets, understand the challenges, and pivot in areas we need to so we’re improving each element of our government, our economy, and our community.