Bill Donovan: Leadership gap in North Adams
The announcement that the North Adams Reg-
ional Hospital was closing sent a shock wave through the entire Northern Berkshire community. More than 500 jobs were lost, along with critical medical services. The ripple effect of the hospital’s closing on the Northern Berkshire economy is not yet known, but no doubt there will be further job losses.
What is most troubling about the sudden closing is that it could have been avoided. The hospital’s financial problems were well-known, as it had been in Chapter 11 since 2011. Despite all the warning signs that the problems were getting worse, nobody was willing to step forward to question the leadership at the hospital or the decisions being made by the trustees.
The governor should have been made aware of the impending crisis six months ago, not 10 days before the hospital ran out of money. The trustees, along with the mayor, knew the severity of the financial problems last fall yet there was no sense of urgency on the part of anyone to deal with it. Sen. Downing and Rep. Cariddi were beating the bushes for months trying to find funds to keep the hospital running. They simply had little to work with.
Mayor Richard Alcom-
bright’s comment upon learning of the closing was most telling: "I’m shocked, but not surprised." He was not surprised because he had known for months that the hospital was running out of money. He was shocked because the trustees never told him they were going to pull the plug.
Last year the mayor publicly defended the trustees’ decision to close Greylock Pavilion despite community outrage. The reason he gave was that it would save critical services at the hospital. The mayor gave public support to the hospital and administration when he should have been questioning their decisions. He should have given the hospital president and the trustees an ultimatum to either get a deal done for a merger or else he would be asking the governor to find a way for the hospital to remain open. As a hospital corporator, the mayor remained a team player. And Mayor Alcom-
bright was the only elected official who chose not to criticize the trustees’ decision to close.
A true leader is one who is willing to do the right thing even if it upsets the so-called pillars of the community. The mayor should have taken a page from the playbook of former Mayor John Barrett III when he faced a similar situation with Sprague Electric 30 years ago. When Barrett learned that Sprague was not being honest with him about its future plans in North Adams, he went after the company. He knew it was risky to take on the city’s largest employer, but considered the risk to be small compared to what could happen if he did nothing. He didn’t care whether the executives at Sprague’s liked him or not, since his main concern was for the future of North Adams and for the people who would be losing their jobs.
Sprague did acknowledge that it was going to reduce the workforce in North Adams by 800. Barrett’s gamble worked, as he got the attention of the governor and things started happening. The governor appointed a task force made up of state officials, political leaders, union officials, and members of the business community and they came together to create a vision for North Adams and the North-
ern Berkshire community. One could ask the question, "Would North Adams have Mass MoCA today if this spirit of regional cooperation had not taken place?"
The closing will have a devastating impact on all of Northern Berkshire, and it may take years for the area to recover. Five thousand college students will no longer be within 10 minutes of a hospital. Williams College and MCLA can and should play a key role in making sure that there is a hospital in North Adams, sooner rather than later. The area’s growing elderly population will be especially vulnerable to a reduction in services.
North Adams has a long history of recovering from adversity but recovering from the loss of the hospital will not be easy. For that to happen, North Adams needs strong political leadership that is proactive rather than reactive.
Bill Donovan wrote columns for The North Adams Transcript.