NORTH ADAMS — On a misty December Wednesday, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's corridors are far from packed with visitors.
But its parking lot is filled with cars.
The museum's commercial real estate enterprise is thriving and has reached an all-time occupancy rate. Nearly 92 percent of the more than 100,000 square feet the museum dedicates to commercial leasing is now occupied by more than 30 tenants, according to Mass MoCA officials.
Bright Ideas Brewing, Tunnel City Coffee, and The Artist Book Foundation are among the notable tenants that have signed leases and are in the process of moving in. Other tenants, like Storey Publishing, have expanded since moving into Mass MoCA, further boosting the occupancy rate.
For many years, the museum's commercial space hovered at occupancy rates near 65 to 70 percent, according to Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson. It's come a long way since renting its first 800 square foot of office space in 1997.
Bright Ideas Brewing looks to open its seven-barrel brewery and tap room in Mass MoCA's Building 1 sometime this coming spring. For owner and co-founder Orion Howard, capitalizing on the more than 150,000 annual Mass MoCA visitors and being a part of its campus "just made sense."
Tunnel City Coffee will open its third Northern Berkshire location on the Mass MoCA campus in early 2016, according to owner Paul Lovegreen. The new shop — located in the former Hudsons antique store — will focus on drip coffee, espresso-based drinks, bean sales, and some small pastries and other simple foods.
"I'm really excited about it, I honestly have been wanting to get into Mass MoCA for quite some time, but I'd been waiting for the right time and the right spot to open up," Lovegreen said.
Thompson offers a number of reasons why steady commercial activity at Mass MoCA is good not only for the museum, but for the city of North Adams, as well. In addition to curating incredible modern art, the museum's founding mission includes spurring economic development in the little city of 13,000 residents it calls home.
"Our primary job here at Mass MoCA is to attract good art and, through the good art, attract ever-growing audiences and diverse audiences," Thompson said. "Our second job is to keep them here as long as we can."
Howard and Eric Kerns, co-founder and manager at Bright Ideas Brewing, think their business — which prominently displays "North Adams, MA" on its marketing material — will help give people a reason to stay in the city after visiting Mass MoCA.
Thompson said that MoCA's commercial leasing "literally helps pay for the heat, light, and power" for a museum that brings more than 100,000 visitors to the city any given year. And with commercial real estate revenue making the museum more financially sustainable, it has to rely on public and other sources of funding less.
The businesses at Mass MoCA bring jobs to the city's downtown, Thompson said, purposefully confronting the notion that the museum is not downtown. He estimates that more than 200 people work at the Mass MoCA campus.
Some of those would not exist or stay in North Adams were it not for Mass MoCA. Thompson said that its proposal to house the Northern Berkshire District Court at the former Sprague Electric research and development building likely prevented it from being absorbed into Central Berkshire District Court in Pittsfield. Every private commercial tenant at Mass MoCA pays taxes, Thompson said.
The museum has seen continued interest in its commercial real estate despite intentionally pricing its spaces higher than the going rate on Main, Marshall, Holden, and Eagle streets, a conscious effort to avoid undercutting or competing with property owners in the downtown business district, according to Thompson.
"The campus is great, there's no doubt about it. There's so much energy there, so you want to be a part of that energy and sap from it," Lovegreen said.