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Morse’s Changing Holyoke, Perhaps all in the Eye of the Beholder…

Sometimes its seems Morse may wonder, "Can you hear the progress now?" (via Facebook/Morse campaign)

Sometimes on the trail, Morse may be wondering, “Can you hear the progress now?” (via Facebook/Morse campaign)

HOLYOKE—A two-story retail building along Northampton Street’s commercial strip, wedged next to a gas station, normally would not normally get much attention. But from there, Alex Morse has based his campaigns for mayor, from his out-of-nowhere upset of Elaine Pluta in 2011 to this year’s fraught contest with homecare mogul Francis “Fran” O’Connell.

Three campaigns in, an older Morse—relatively speaking—inhabits the office now. He’s engaged to be married. Projects begun by or during his administration are coming into being. Morse, 26, admitted some errors while parrying the severity of others, but he seems at peace with this election.

“I feel good,” Morse said, “Unlike my opponent, we win because we are more organized and strategic and focus on a positive message that resonates.”

This race could be the ultimate test of Morse’s charisma and skills as an organizer. Although Morse and his allies have fired shots at O’Connell, promoting a hopeful future for the Paper City remains central to his campaign, set against O’Connell’s largely self-financed $40,000 onslaught on the airwaves. Morse has bought TV time too, though only a fraction as much.

In a wide-ranging interview Morse discussed Holyoke, its politics, his administration and beyond. Sitting at a desk in a room decorated with precinct maps and campaign posters, he defended his record against so-called “mistruths” emanating from O’Connell’s side.

Fran O’Connell (via Twitter/@franforholyoke)

Morse showed some frustration over O’Connell’s criticisms, “My opponent is so interesting because he does not acknowledge any progress.”

Morse has at least moved the needle. Roughly $150 million in construction is in the pipeline from artist space in old mills to condos around downtown. The ex-Holiday Inn near the Holyoke Mall, which housed homeless in later incarnations, is being redeveloped with national brand names.

Pointing to Race Street, he said, “It is bustling with different activity within the creative economy.” That in turn could rebuild Holyoke’s urban landscape. Holyoke’s new identity is still a work in progress, “We’re not Northampton, we’re not a finished product.”

O’Connell has summarily dismissed such projects as “wishes and dreams,” asserting, as during WHYN’s debate, many lack financing . Morse, audibly perturbed by O’Connell’s blithe claims, averred otherwise.

Sen. Eric Lesser with Mayor Alex Morse this past Sunday (WMassP&I)

Morse supporters have also highlighted his credibility beyond Holyoke. During a canvass kickoff this past weekend, Longmeadow State Senator Eric Lesser said Morse enjoyed a statewide reputation and had  a great working relationship with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. When the Baker administration comes west, officials often stop here.

Critics claim the mayor touts projects begun before his time or even when he was a child. Morse waved off that critique, “The computer center got completed on my watch, but it wasn’t as if we introduced the concept of it.”

Some ventures date to before his tenure, but were stuck on the drawing board. The rail line that runs through Holyoke had been in progress for years, but his administration, Morse insisted, helped secure the Amtrak stop and the funds to build its platform.

The projects Morse advertises do not quiet those that vehemently oppose him. Many long for when paper mills and massive factories employed hundreds of workers and downtown teemed with shoppers.

In this shot of a Holyoke canal, past, present & future, but which will prevail? (via wikipedia)

Even though 30 years of mayors here—and in most cities—could not reverse that economic shift, during his interview with The Republican editorial board, O’Connell pointedly did not reject the notion that he represented the past and promised to attract large manufacturers to the city.

As of posting time, O’Connell had not yet agreed to an interview with WMassP&I to discuss the campaign.

“We’re never going to recreate what once was Holyoke’s downtown,” Morse said, but argued the city could host a diverse center with views of the canals, new restaurants and the arts.  Downtown “is going to look different. I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he asserted.

While the severity of his lapses may be subjective, Morse’s current term has not been without problems from the schools to city finances.

Amid the state takeover, Morse has faced criticism for missing School Committee meetings. He told WMassP&I, however that his office was intimately involved in every item on the Committee’s agendas.

Stephen Zrike, Holyoke Public School Receiver and former Wakefield Superintendent (via Wakefield Public Schools)

More to the point, his attendance would not have stopped the takeover. Receivership had prompted fear and trepidation, but Stephen Zrike, the receiver, has received positive reviews during his first few months on the job. Many, including O’Connell, have praised parts of Zrike’s turnaround plan.

“My role as mayor is also to acknowledge our setbacks and challenges,” Morse said, and to “Embrace this challenge as an opportunity.”

The city’s fiscal health has also been a target, such as the deficit in the current budget. While the sewer fee has grabbed headlines, Morse said very likely free cash—unspent funds from last fiscal year—would balance the books. That has been the practice going back to at least 2008 according to news reports.

Rather, he said he improved budget practices and maintained services despite the loss in tax revenue from the Mt. Tom coal plant shutdown and foreclosure crisis-driven declines in property values. He said reserves were at $12 million, almost twice the amount recommended by bond rating agencies.

Morse said he never proposed a sewer fee to close deficit, and merely forwarded the city auditor’s recommendation to that effect. Although unpaid sewer bills contribute to the gap—and Morse said his administration has tried to collect using liens and other tools—the city auditor has said EPA-mandated work to keep raw sewage out of the Connecticut River is driving the deficit. Combining water and sewer department would take those deficits off the city’s books, but the Council has thus far rejected that idea.

Holyoke's budget issues go back years, as have the short-term fixes. (WMassP&I)

Holyoke’s budget issues go back years, as have the short-term fixes. (WMassP&I)

Free cash helps, but Morse would rather put that money into roads, sidewalks and other projects. “It just means we are not using that money on things that people expect from government.”

O’Connell has hit Morse for the poverty rate as well—although, it too has bedeviled the city for decades.

Morse pointed to efforts utilize the community colleges to train high school students for jobs in the region and there are city efforts to encourage Latino residents—who constitute a large part of the city’s poor—to start businesses. He observed that many projects are occurring in areas home to the greatest concentration of Latinos and whose neighborhoods have suffered from disinvestment for years.

When asked how being mayor has changed him, Morse paused and noted that his enthusiasm for the city is among that which has not changed.

If any naiveté followed Morse into City Hall, it has fallen away. “You just have to overcome those folks are in politics for the wrong reasons.”

To do that, Morse and his coalition (parts of which predate his own campaign for mayor) have elected city councilors over the last election or two, appointed new people to boards and expanded to include some of Holyoke’s old guard like former mayor and state senator Martin Dunn.

Acknowledging his election upset the political establishment here, Morse added, “Obviously one of the things we learned over the last four years is that not everybody wants the same thing for the city.”

Being mayor has not just toughened Morse’s political outlook. He values what time with family and friends the job allows. “There’s always a consequence of being in public life and public scrutiny,” he said.

In any event, Morse has no regrets.

“I can’t see it any other way,” he said of his life. “It would be hard for me to imagine not doing this.”