NORTH ADAMS — What began a few years ago with a prototype in a basement may one day become an extreme model railroad museum.
On Saturday, Mass MoCA visionary Thomas Krens was flanked by city officials and former Massachusetts Govs. William Weld and Michael Dukakis as he proposed transforming a section of Western Gateway Heritage State Park into a massive, multimillion dollar extreme model railroad and architecture museum.
That proposal is part of a three-pronged development plan that also includes the renovation of the city's Mohawk Theater on Main Street and his previously announced vision for a 160,000-square-foot contemporary art museum on the city's Harriman-West Airport grounds.
North Adams and the commonwealth of Massachusetts "have to fully embrace the notion" that culture and education are its primary industries and future, said Krens, the former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, at the press conference on Saturday.
Working with architect Richard Gluckman, Krens has introduced plans to take over the park's largest building with a major addition designed by Gluckman to provide a total of 32,000 square feet for model trains at Heritage State Park, a former rail yard that is controlled by the North Adams Redevelopment Authority.
The team envisions a park with, in addition to its current tenants, a railcar restaurant, Mass MoCA retail space, and a distillery.
The model railroad museum, which would sit directly north of the Freight Yard Pub, would employ about 60 staff and model train operators, Krens said. It could contain some two miles of track and the building would run some 670 feet long, Gluckman estimated.
With an eye on the allure of model architecture and railroads to people of all ages, Krens believes the museum could draw hundreds of thousands annually and complement a growing "cultural corridor" in North Adams and Williamstown.
The closest example to what Krens is proposing in North Adams is the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany, which is home to the world's largest model railway and received more than a million visitors annually.
Throughout his career, Krens said he has focused on making museums actually fun to go to. Though dismissed by some art critics at the time, "The Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit Krens spearheaded at The Guggenheim in 1998 brought in the museum's largest-ever crowds.
"I always thought that museums could be many things," Krens said.
The model railroad is the first major proposal for a transformation of the struggling park since negotiations with investors Greylock Market, LLC fell through earlier this year. Mayor Richard Alcombright has sought to transform the park and limit the redevelopment authority's role in its management since his first years in office.
Unlike the previous iterations of development plans under the Greylock Market, Krens' plans do not leave any doubt about the continued future at the park of the Department of Conservation and Recreation's Visitors Museum and the North Adams Historical Society's Museum of History and Science — though it may be in a different building.
Though Krens has included the renovation of the Mohawk Theater — which opened in 1938 and closed in 1991 — as a part of this three-level approach to development, the plans have fewer of his fingerprints on them. Instead, Krens plans to continue the efforts made within the city in the 1990s and 2000s to restore the theater to its former glory.
Touring through the area this summer, Krens and the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club stopped and toured the Mohawk Theater. Established actors such as Jeremy Irons and Laurence Fishburne walked through the 1,000-plus seat capacity theater and offered ideas for its eventual reuse. Krens envisions it as a future home for an international film festival honoring his late friend and actor Dennis Hopper.
Already familiar to area residents are Krens' plans for a global contemporary art museum at the city's airport grounds on State Road, which he announced before the airport commission in a presentation in August.
Krens, working again with Gluckman, envisions a massive, open, and architecturally simple-yet-elegant museum with some 400 works of privately collected art.
Though he had originally hoped to open the museum in China, Krens said he wanted to open the museum closer to his Williamstown home. Working with Alcombright and North Adams Partnership CEO and City Solicitor John DeRosa, Krens found and saw potential in the airport property.
City officials see enormous economic and cultural potential in the plans, and Mayor Richard Alcombright publicly endorsed them. Krens notes that the development would be in the same spirit of the city's Vision 2030 Master Plan and nonprofit North Adams Partnership's Economic Development Strategic Plan.
The model train museum's attendance was estimated in the area of 150,000 annually — approaching the number drawn by Mass MoCA every year — bringing even more people to a city that's shifted its economic development focus in the past 30 years on increasing tourism.
Krens acknowledges that Mass MoCA, while a success, has not been the "silver bullet" it was originally thought of, as the city's unemployment rate and per capita income still far worse than the state average. But, he argues, Mass MoCA has brought the city "so close," and further development could help achieve those original goals to revitalize the city.
Krens estimates of the some 50 similarly scaled projects he's chased, about 25 percent have come to fruition and he concedes that he can't control a number of external factors.
The support of Weld and Dukakis, a self-described "rail fanatic," is expected to aid Krens make the dream a reality. Both had a pivotal role in the funding of Mass MoCA.
"Give me a $600,000 a year revenue stream and even I can find $10 million to finance the development here in the heritage park," Weld said.
Dukakis said it was a "special day" when he learned of the project.
"I've been very frustrated with the heritage park program, especially with this one, which as you know was created to celebrate railroad, among other things, because of the history of this city and this region," Dukakis said.