Bill Donovan: North Adams needs more from MoCA

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NORTH ADAMS >> The opening of Mass MoCA nearly 17 years ago is perhaps one of the most significant economic development projects in Northern Berkshire in the last 50 years. It was the beginning of what was referred to as the creative economy in the county. Art and culture was now economic development and job creation.

Under the leadership of Joe Thompson, Mass MoCA has exceeded just about everyone's expectations as it continues to expand its programs and receive acclaim in the international art community. Despite that, Mass MoCA's success of late has not translated into helping the North Adams economy.

Mass MoCA at first did have a positive impact on the city's economy. Millions of dollars in private sector investment was made in North Adams. The Porches Inn, a $5 million, opened. Apartments in downtown were being converted into condominiums, some selling for more than $300,000, and five new restaurants opened in the downtown. MCLA developed a fine arts program and was growing as a result of Mass MoCA and a new college president.

No help to downtown

However, things changed, especially during the past five years when someone decided North Adams needed a new brand. Hundreds of thousands were spent on studies while the North Adams economy was spiraling downhill. Most evident was economic decline in the downtown, which just five years ago had been showing such promise when the Mohawk Theater saw a $3 million investment along with a renovated marquee. Today many businesses have closed, their space empty, and even the Mohawk marquee is no longer lit as it once was.

As exciting a cultural venue as Mass MoCA is, it has done nothing to revive North Adams' downtown. Mass MoCA has actually become an energetic competitor against growth in the downtown as it raids downtown businesses in order to fill its own commercial space. That's good news for the museum, but bad news for North Adams and the downtown.

It was more than five years ago when Mayor Richard Alcombright approved the museum's leasing space to the Social Security office, which had always been on Main Street. Former Mayor John Barrett III opposed the moving of Social Security to Mass MoCA as he believed it would negatively impact the downtown.

I was on the North Adams City Council when Barrett explained his position. Despite knowing that the office would help Mass MoCA financially, he felt it would be a greater detriment to the downtown because losing the foot traffic on Main Street could be the difference for some businesses surviving or closing their doors. When the Social Security offices moved, 70 percent of the commercial property on Main Street was filled. Today commercial property in the downtown is closer to being 70 percent empty.

There is no question Mass MoCA is important to the North Adams economy as without it things would be much worse. The problem is that it has become the city's entire economy and that is not good for either Mass MoCA or North Adams. The city needs a vision and plan which will benefit both Mass MoCA and North Adams. North Adams needs to have a say in its future and not have that future determined by people who don't live there.

Since the inception of Mass MoCA, more than $60 million in public money has been invested in the museum. There has also been significant private sector money invested to match a portion of the public money. In the last five years there has been little in the way of laying out real money from those who wanted public assistance for their projects.

Those with close ties to Mass MoCA didn't close the deal to privatize Heritage Park despite getting significant tax incentives. They even got a concession so they wouldn't have to pay the agreed upon $750,000 lease. The Greylock Mill is looking for significant tax breaks in addition to state and federal grants. The Redwood Motel developers were given a sweetheart deal on the easement they purchased from the city without any commitment as to what the land would be used for. Developers have responsibilities and North Adams shouldn't be used as someone's playground.

Part of, not just in

I was on the City Council when things didn't look too good for Mass MoCA. The entire city came together to fight for Mass MoCA and because of them it happened. Many new to the area have no idea how it came together. Mass MoCA and North Adams have to return to the days when they were synonymous with one another. As former Mayor Barrett always said, "MoCA can't just be in North Adams, it has to be part of North Adams."

The millions of public tax dollars given to Mass MoCA weren't intended only to make it an arts showcase, or a concert hall, or a nice place to do business. They were given to Mass MoCA so it could help save North Adams. It's time for local and state political leadership to start asking Mass MoCA some tough questions and demanding more bang for the taxpayers' buck.

Bill Donovan is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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