High Tech for a Historic City—A 21-Year-Old Web Entrepreneur’s View of the Big Computing Center Planned for His Home Town
Civic leaders, economic visionaries, and passionate residents often claim that their city is the next to rebound. I say with confidence that my city is next in line for metamorphosis. Some find their new meaning through the arts and other organic movements, but in most recent accounts, it seems, a few deserving cities are staged for a comeback with the help of high-tech industry. Holyoke, Massachusetts, is one of these cities.
Last week, it was announced that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts, and Boston University would be collaborating with Fortune 500 technology giants Cisco Systems and EMC and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to build a high-performance computing center (HPCC) in the city of Holyoke.
I got involved in the early stages of this effort back in October of 2008, when I was invited to a Technology Roundtable at MIT. It was surreal finding myself, a young web entrepreneur, talking with and having breakfast at the same table as Governor Patrick, MIT president Dr. Susan Hockfield, Cisco’s John Chambers, and various other leaders and innovators in the world of business and technology. Major topics included the future of the tech industry in Massachusetts, its impact on the state economy, and support of entrepreneurship. When the conversation moved in my direction, I was encouraged to share my thoughts and suggest various underutilized opportunities I saw as a young entrepreneur living and working in the western part of the state. I made what I hoped were persuasive statements for my city, advocating that it would be the premier location for sustainable, cost-effective, large-scale data centers. By the look on everyone’s faces, it was clear that Holyoke had been on their radar for such a project.
Western Massachusetts has many valuable resources that would make it an appealing and economically advantageous destination for the tech industry. But what firmly stands out in this region is the small city of Holyoke and its abundance of power—specifically, cheap, renewable hydro-electric power. The city receives approximately three-quarters of its energy from its hydro-electric sources, which include an expansive dam and turbines located along canals powered by water diverted from the Connecticut River. The municipality-owned utility company also announced recently that it would be acquiring hundreds of acres of land on a nearby mountain range to develop a high-capacity wind farm. In regards to technology, Holyoke already has an extensive high-speed fiber optic network throughout its downtown and is located along the Mass Information Turnpike backbone.
It is likely that Holyoke’s new computing and data center will be modeled after Google’s “Project 02″ in The Dalles, OR, and its data-center in Baudour, Belgium. Water from the river or industrial canals will be used to cool the servers and ensure that the hardware runs efficiently.
When it was founded in the mid-19th century, Holyoke was one of the first cities planned for industry—and it promoted its plentiful supply of inexpensive energy and labor to lure manufacturing businesses and investors. It became the center of the global paper industry and spurred tremendous amounts of wealth, laying claim to being the richest city per-capita in the United States by the 1920s. At the city’s prime, Holyoke’s cultural offerings were compared to those of New York City and Paris. After the Great Depression and general de-industrialization that struck the Northeast, Holyoke slowly began to lose its prosperity, businesses, jobs, population, and reputation. For as long as I can remember in my 21 years of existence, the city has been in rough shape. People often blame the city’s reputation as what’s repelling business—but real innovators, entrepreneurs, and “urbanists” see past that image and recognize this diamond in the rough. The raw, undisputed assets stare you straight in the face—and, finally, the right people are staring back. This new computing collaboration will be an anchor, attracting entrepreneurs and young minds eager for involvement in something of great magnitude.
As this high-profile project moves forward, I’d expect many eyes from the technology sector to be fixated on Holyoke. There is still over two-million square feet of vacant building space, consisting mostly of red-brick factory structures ready to be reclaimed by the high-tech community at bargain prices. Is there a chance that a company like Google might look at Holyoke for its next data-center in the Northeast? I believe it’s very likely.
I’m optimistic about what the future holds for the city of Holyoke. High tech offers the much-needed flow of capital, job creation, and stimulus that post-industrial cities like Holyoke desperately thirst for. With the escalating focus on green industry, sustainability, and long-term cost factors, Holyoke is a premier location for the Northeast IT sector. The beloved Queen of Industrial Cities as it was called at turn of the century, fell off her throne many decades ago, but is now back with a new purpose. Thanks to the forward-thinking powers at hand, Holyoke will be given a new identity as a coveted destination for high tech.