NORTH ADAMS >> North Adams and Adams have always been wonderful places to live, offering a similarly good quality of small town life.
What I've seen happening lately, however, should be setting off all kinds of alarms. Both communities are heading rapidly to a condition so full of problems that their futures are at stake.
Over the past few years both towns have become shells of their former selves. Most troubling is that community leaders are clearly not willing to accept that immediate and fundamental changes have to be made to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
Sinking school district
Adams' failure to realize that there were serious problems with the school system long ago has now put the town in a bad position. Education has always been important in Adams but the taxpayers' support has been wasted as the school system sinks deeper and deeper into financial trouble and the district's test scores sink at the same pace.
Adams and Cheshire Selectmen need to hire an independent consultant to revisit the regional school district agreement. This is the only way to insure that the district meets the educational goals and objectives of both communities and is also affordable.
Adams also has to address the economic vitality of its downtown, which is now on life support. The time has come for action and not just more of the same old same old. There are many successful businesses in downtown Adams and they need support in the form of more private/public sector investment on Park Street and Summer Street.
There is no reason, with busy Route 8 running through the center of the downtown, that more can't be done. Imagine a bed and breakfast, or an inn, maybe even downtown condos for those residents who want to remain in town but no longer want to maintain a home. Adams needs to get out of the past and start thinking outside of the box if it is to grow as a community. Growth means expanding the tax base, which is the only way tax bills will stop rising at such an alarming rate. The tax rate isn't what's causing skyrocketing Adams tax bills. The problem is the failure of town leaders to expand the tax base.
North Adams, like Adams, has suffered the loss of population and resources as businesses and factories closed. The state has poured millions into the city but with little success in expanding its tax base. The mayor and City Council, however, continue to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax incentives with little to show for it. Most economists now say that tax incentives do little to create jobs. At the same time these tax giveaways are approved, the rest of the taxpayers have to make them up. The current economic development strategy in North Adams doesn't create jobs but just helps the well-heeled, who usually don't even use their own money.
Hoopla, no plan
North Adams has received millions of dollars from Boston for the Western Gateway Heritage Park and MASS MoCA but its economy continues its downward slide, with the highest unemployment rate in Berkshire County. In its first 10 years of operation, MoCA drove the North Adams economy as the downtown grew and the tax base expanded to the benefit of businesses and homeowners. As a North Adams city councilor during those years, I thought MoCA could be the economic engine for the city. But in the past few years, that economic engine has run out of gas.
In recent years, the mayor and City Council seem to have been more interested in the hoopla of Mass MoCA rather than developing a concrete plan which would diversify the city's economy. North Adams' political leaders think painting highway overpasses with murals, promoting the opening of second-hand art galleries up and down Main Street, and, of course, let's not forget $725,000 for the skate board park, is the answer to North Adams' economic revival. Try telling that to the person who lost their job at the hospital, the person who bagged groceries at Price Chopper or the person who worked at Excelsior.
I love Northern Berkshire and I have lived here my entire life. I am, however, worried about our future. Both Adams and North Adams need bold leadership and residents who are going to speak up. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
Bill Donovan is an occasional Eagle contributor.