Arts, vision are keys to Northern Berkshire's economic strength
NORTH ADAMS — Museums, lots of them, housing model trains, antique clocks and contemporary art, a rehabilitated classical theater, an actual scenic railway, innovative business startups, state and private investment and the passion of talented residents.
The combination could rebuild a city and a larger region, if the grand visions voiced by political, educational and economic leaders at a Northern Berkshire Economic Summit hosted by Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on Saturday prove true.
Former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Krens painted the most complete — and hopeful — picture.
"This could actually become a destination territory," Krens said in laying out involved plans for a multi-pronged Northern Berkshire "cultural corridor."
Although present anchor institutions — Williamstown's Clark Art Institute and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — draw roughly half a million people annually, "Northern Berkshire County is still a day trip for most people," Krens pointed out.
Economic impact multiplies by eight when visitors stay overnight, Krens said, concluding, "North Adams needs more world-class cultural attractions" to make visitors stay longer.
Krens laid out his plan: rehabilitating the Mohawk Theater and Norad Mill, building a Global Contemporary Art Museum near Harriman-and-West Airport, housing a giant model railroad and antique clock museums and distillery inside Western Gateway Heritage State Park and inviting developers to build a luxury art hotel downtown.
Krens said he plans to have a hand in all of it. Why? Within a half-day's drive of North Adams are 36 million people, more than Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago, he said. The potential audience is there.
"It's all about audience," Krens said. "I know how to do these projects," he added, referring to his work on the ongoing, massive, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project.
The heady vision contrasted with the hard realities of a city suffering 17 percent poverty — the highest rate in the region — and a county declining in population, with municipalities nearing their tax levy limits as they return year after year to a declining pool of taxpayers to fund the increasing costs of services.
"What do we do to bring people back here?" said Bill Kolis, owner of the Firehouse Cafe in Adams. "We have a lot to sell. Statistics don't dictate the future. We can listen to the numbers all day long, but what are we going to do to turn them around?"
North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, too, was determined and optimistic, pointing to private and public investments being made in Adams, North Adams and Williamstown that "complement and strengthen each other" and "embrace our recreational resources like the Appalachian Trail and the Hoosic River."
More needs to be done, the mayor said.
"The need to support private investment, by providing smart and measured short-term tax incentives to projects that promote and promise significant growth in our tax base, is an absolute must," Alcombright said. "Bottom line is, we can't wait for growth, we have to go out and find it."
That was also the growth model being advocated by Jay Ash, state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, who attended and spoke at the summit on Saturday.
Ash compared the work to be done in North Adams to what he did earlier in his career to revitalize Chelsea, which went from being the butt of jokes to a thriving city via many of the same initiatives.
Saturday's presentations — which included assessments of schools, healthcare, the environment and the local culture surrounding innovation and business ideas — clearly impressed the secretary.
Ash spoke the magic words which many no doubt came wanting to hear.
"Count on us to be supportive," he said several times. "We're going to have the resources to support good planning. The reason I'm out here on a Saturday is that we won't be successful unless you're successful."
Ash described the philosophy of the Baker administration as less dictating from above, more working with local parties to "figure out what local people want and are willing to support and helping them do it."
To that end, Ash said the administration is proposing to increase MassWorks funding by an additional 25 percent — money which could well end up supporting any of the initiatives Krens described — and state funding for the Transformative Development Initiative, for brownfields remediation and toward public colleges, universities and high schools.
"You don't need me up here to tell you about what you should be doing," Ash said. "There are times when I go into communities and I've got to lead. Other times, I go into communities and I have to figure out how to follow."
He added, "I'm proud to stand up here and tell you I'm going to be a follower, not a leader, here."
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