NORTH ADAMS — Sprague Electric Co.’s exit from Berkshire County wasn’t as dramatic as General Electric’s, but the downsizing of North Adams’ largest employer beginning in the mid-1980s still sent shock waves through the local economy that continue to reverberate today.
John L. Sprague remembers it well. He spent 11 years as the president of the company that was founded by his father, Robert, who moved it from Quincy to North Adams in 1929. He was in charge in 1984 and 1985 when new owner Penn Central moved the company’s international headquarters from the Berkshires to Lexington and eliminated 700 Sprague jobs in North Adams That move, the Eagle later reported, “left a legacy of bitterness in the city,” even though Sprague didn’t completely leave North Adams until the early 1990s.
Now 83, John Sprague recently decided to put his thoughts about the company and the local economy into a book. Named after the street address of Sprague’s former North Adams plant, “ 87 Marshall Street” is scheduled for release by the end of this year or by early 2014. It is being published by Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts’ publications. Mass MoCA occupies the former Sprague site.
“It started as a history of Sprague Electric, which is what I wanted to do,” said Sprague, who currently works as a business consultant. “But I expanded it into a regional history of Northern Berkshire, detailing Arnold Printing (another former large North Adams employer ), Sprague and Mass MoCA.”
In a recent interview, Sprague said he was fascinated with the way the economy in North Berkshire has changed from one based on large industrial employers to one based on culture.
“The whole area is turning to arts and culture as the basis of their economy, and that’s not generating enough jobs,” Sprague said. “There have to be other kinds of productive jobs going on in North County and North Adams to stop that trend.”
Sprague doesn’t think the Berkshires should totally abandon the creative economy.
“It’s the only thing they’ve got right now,” he said. “The last thing you should do is dump that and hope something else will come along. Mass MoCA, in my opinion, saved North Adams from oblivion.”
But he does believe the North Berkshire economy needs more diversity if it is to succeed. With the huge employers that used to dominate the Berkshires now long gone, Sprague says there should be more emphasis on smaller, customer-service type firms — North County concerns like Storey Publishing, Everyday Health, or BoxCar Media, that employ small numbers of people — to complement the arts and culture enterprises. He said the advent of those companies is a natural progression from Arnold Printing, which at one time was the world’s largest textile printing company, and Sprague, which employed 4,100 in five locations in North Adams at its height in 1966.
“Instead of one entity employing thousands of people we now have hundreds of entries,” employing much smaller numbers, he said. “In my own opinion, there’s room here for a number of smaller entries that [concentrate] on customer service, publishing services, and so forth.
“I don’t know how you get at them,” he said. “ My theory would be to hire someone full time to go down to the metro areas and visit them.”
Michael Supranowicz, the vice president and chief operating officer of 1Berkshire, the county’s leading economicdevelopment agency, said county officials have not specifically traveled to metro areas to visit companies, but have done numerous forms of outreach, such as bringing site scouts from different companies to tour Pittsfield during former Mayor James M. Ruberto’s tenure. Officials from MassDevelopment have also toured Pittsfield and Lee.
“I think we always look to attract business here,” said Supranowicz, who is also the president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce. “But as you’ve heard me say many many times, the easiest way to build your economy is to create opportunities for your businesses to add more jobs.
“The people and businesses are already here,” he said. “It’s harder to try and attract companies to the region. You can spend a lot of time and money.”
John Barrett III was North Adams’ mayor when Sprague downsized and left. He’s now the director of the Berkshire Works Career Center.
“I certainly don’t agree with him on everything,” said Barrett, whom Sprague interviewed for his book. “But we did come to the conclusion that there has to be a different way to go.”
Barrett said Mass MoCA, which he helped bring to North Adams, through its role as a business- development center, has acted as an economic catalyst for region, not a key component. But he agrees with Sprague that too much of an emphasis on the arts isn’t a good thing, because those kinds of businesses don’t create jobs.
“Jobs are created by cities and towns,” he said. “ Not regional entities.”
One reason Sprague believes North Berkshire isn’t attracting enough jobs has been the steady drop in the population of North Adams, which he says has declined every decade since 1900.
“I haven’t tried to correlate it with the number of jobs, but there aren’t enough jobs here simply,” Sprague said.
During a recent lecture in Williamstown about his book, Sprague said the local economy might have to bottom out before it gets better.
“To me, bottoming out is that the loss of population has stopped,” Sprague said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think you have to get to the bottom before anything can happen. What I mean is that trend of 100 years is stopped.”
He also touched on how the region’s lack of a “core university complex” such as those in Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, hampers the growth of research and development.
The Berkshires have four institutions of higher learning. MCLA has two graduate programs, but none of other three do not.
A core university complex wasn’t essential in the Berkshires when companies like Sprague were large enough to provide those services themselves, he said. “We had one of the largest research and development agencies in the electronics capacitor industry in the 1960s,” he said. “We had 20 people with Ph.Ds, and 200 with bachelor’s or master’s degrees. A vast array of tech people here went out in other parts of the country and started new businesses. Sprague Electric, in its day, was the equivalent of having a medium-sized technological university.”
The new science and technology center at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which is scheduled to open in the fall, could potentially be a catalyst for research and development. But Sprague noted that MCLA’s student body is much smaller than the number of people who were once employed at Sprague.
MCLA's student body is about 2200, according to the college, which is much less than Sprague employed in North Adams at its height.
“So I think you have to wait and see,” Sprague said.