NORTH ADAMS -- Community leaders and other stakeholders expressed relief Thursday after learning that an agreement has been reached for Berkshire Medical Center to open an emergency facility at -- and eventually purchase -- the former North Adams Regional Hospital.

"I am very encouraged by the news," said John Meaney, general manager of North Adams Ambulance Service. "I think we're starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel."

Meaney has been leading his crews through difficult times since the hospital closed. Their ambulance turnaround times tripled, their fuel and maintenance costs went up, the crews have been putting in a lot of overtime and they had to lease another vehicle to handle the load.

"I hope down the road they'll start to develop other services in that building, which are sorely needed," Meaney added. "But here's hoping that in a month we'll have some relief for the community and have emergency services restored in North County."

Meaney said officials and staff at the BMC emergency department have been handling the challenging situation well.

"They have been really great and made this transition as smooth as possible," he said.

If the agreement is approved by the judge in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, BMC could open a satellite emergency center at the North Adams facility by mid-May. After the purchase agreement is finalized -- and a mandatory waiting period -- BMC could own the facility by July. It has not detailed what it hopes to do with the rest of the building.

Al Bashevkin, executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for people in North County, said Thursday's announcement bodes well for a number of reasons.

"It is really important to have an emergency room -- and people who have to use it are going to be very relieved they don't have to go to BMC or Bennington, especially the folks in places like Florida and Stamford (Vt.)," he said. "Then there are the ambulance services who have been having a hard time of it."

But, Bashevkin noted, there is more work to be done.

"The hope is this isn't the end of the road," he said. "Now it's time to have a solid conversation about what kind of medical facility is needed here. For many it's about jobs. For others it's about health care."

State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, applauded the news.

"I am very thankful for all of the key players and their never-ending drive to reopen the emergency room," she said. "I hope they will continue to have our community's best interests at heart."

She said she hopes to see BMC develop "as many other medical services as the hospital can support, and that the community will use the hospital as much as possible. It will need the support of the community."

Robin Simonetti, a former nurse in the day surgical unit at NARH and co-chairwoman of the local branch of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said it looks like "things are heading in the right direction. We need the emergency room open as soon as possible -- we were hoping it could happen sooner. But we are very happy they're (BMC) looking to buy the whole hospital, because we want to see a full-service hospital -- that's our goal."

"The health care workers of 1199SEIU from NARH are encouraged by this morning's news that progress is being made," said Cindy DeBlois of Adams, a former dietary staff worker with 39 years of experience at the former NARH and an 1199SEIU member. "Our work with elected leaders and all stakeholders to restore services will continue, but in the meantime, this morning's developments are good news for the community."

North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright expressed hope for the reintroduction of other medical services at the former NARH. But for now, he said, he is grateful for the news.

"We've had our share of bad days lately," he said. "But I guess we can chalk this one up as a good day."

Reactions rolled in from other parts of the state as well.

Heather Nichols, press secretary for Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, said the news is good, but the job is not done.

"Today's agreement is a critical step toward restoring an emergency medical care facility to North Adams and the surrounding communities," she said. "We will continue pushing forward until an emergency facility is up and running in the community, and are grateful for the efforts of everyone who is working together to ensure the residents of Northern Berkshire County have access to timely medical care."

David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, welcomed the news.

"Much needed progress is being made to establish an emergency service on the site of North Adams Regional Hospital," he said. "However, it is important for all parties involved in this issue to understand that a satellite emergency service is only an intermediate step to the ultimate solution to this crisis, which is the restoration of a full-service hospital to protect the residents of Northern Berkshire County."

To reach Scott Stafford:
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