Brendan Ciecko: Would You Let This Kid Save Your Town?
It helps that Ciecko isn’t just any young creative type. Not many shaggy-haired hipsters have appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine as one of the top entrepreneurs under 30, after all. After the story came out last year, Governor Deval Patrick invited Ciecko to participate in a technology roundtable at MIT. The governor was looking for representation from youth, small business, and western Massachusetts; Ciecko was a trifecta.
In October 2008, Ciecko sat down with the governor, MIT president Susan Hockfield, and the CEOs of the biggest technology companies in the state. "We were largely hoping he’d bring the perspective from his own business," says Greg Bialecki, state secretary of housing and economic development. "But it was clear he had been thinking about how to make Holyoke and the Pioneer Valley a better place for everyone."
Ciecko’s vision of Holyoke as an incubator for tech-savvy entrepreneurs dovetailed nicely with the thinking of many in the room who were already eyeing the city’s network of canals for cheap, green power. This summer a consortium including MIT, UMass, Cisco, and EMC announced a plan to build a $100 million high-performance computing center in Holyoke, projected to break ground next year. Ciecko seems more awestruck by this news than by any of the rock stars he’s met. "It will be huge," he says, "just earth-shattering for a place like this."
He’s working with both state and local agencies to help revitalize downtown and attract businesses to cater to the scores of techies who will descend upon the city. One way to do that, he thinks, is to open the canals to kayaks and paddleboats. This idea is supplemented by something he calls "Holyoksterdam": cordoning off several blocks downtown with mock Dutch row houses and lining the canals with tulips to create a kitschy miniature Amsterdam for a few weeks. "We’ll have bicycle races, we’ll have a fake red-light district," he says. "The greatest thing is that there were never ever any Dutch immigrants in Holyoke. It’s like the most ironic thing."
Ciecko formally proposed the idea to the city, even designing a logo and suggesting a partnership with nearby Bradley International Airport, which offers a direct flight to Amsterdam. But he has yet to hear back from City Hall, he says with obvious frustration. "The mayor’s a lame duck anyway," he later adds by e-mail.
Holyoke’s mayor, Mike Sullivan, who will leave office this month after 10 years, says Ciecko isn’t the first person to suggest boating on the canals. The problem is that the industrial currents used to generate electricity are too strong to allow for boating, he says.
During his tenure, Sullivan has seen many civic-minded entrepreneurs burn out with frustration when faced with practical obstacles or the city’s lack of resources. "That’s part of the experience that has to be developed in young leaders," he says. "You can’t come to the mayor or the city council and say, ‘We should have boats on the canals,’ and when we say, ‘There’s a lot to be done to engineer it,’ say we are not being cooperative."
For all his talent, it seems, Ciecko is quickly learning that drive alone won’t bring his most ambitious ideas to life. Designing a city requires more than a computer and an Internet connection. It takes political calculus and compromise, zoning meetings and environmental impact studies. And it takes the hardest thing for any 21-year-old to learn: patience.