Economic impacts spilling outside Mass MoCA

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NORTH ADAMS — Naturally, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s mission is to be a vibrant home for premier contemporary art — but it doesn’t end there.

Since the museum opened in 1999, it’s had the unique task of shouldering the responsibility for turning that artistic energy into economic activity in North Adams and the surrounding area.

And with the $65.4 million phase of renovations to the historic site completed this weekend, museum officials are confident the economic impact will begin to grow unlike ever before.

In its first 18 years in operation, the museum’s economic predictions largely have come to fruition “in total, not in detail,” Thompson said.

UNEXPECTED BENEFITS

A 2006 study by Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard estimated its impact was actually exceeding $20 million, but not necessarily in the ways that the museum’s proponents had initially guessed.

For example, the museum initially had predicted that some 90 percent of its visitors would be from outside of the Berkshires. But thanks to the performing arts program, that number is actually about 70 percent.

“You don’t get economic impact credit for [local visitors],” Thompson said.

It was also assumed that many visitors would go to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and Mass MoCA in a single trip. But far less than half actually see both, largely because of the nature of Mass MoCA’s performing arts programs, Thompson figures.

Economic impact from visitors to the galleries was lower than expected, but by opening a commercial development operation the museum has generated more economic activity, Thompson contends.

More than 30 businesses, with an estimated 300 employees, rent space at Mass MoCA.

“There was a whole other level of economic activity, which was generated by the businesses who were locating here or staying in town because of Mass MoCA,” Thompson said.

In the lead-up to Phase III, Thompson presented evidence of higher occupancy rates in downtown, an improved unemployment rate in the city and other benefits of Mass MoCA’s existence in the Steeple City.

According to Sheppard, the ongoing economic impact of Mass MoCA is substantial and seems to be expanding.

“It is generating a lot of interest in the market, so we’re seeing the economic impact ramp up to a certain extent,” Sheppard said.

Citing figures from a study in 2015, Sheppard said Mass MoCA added roughly $34.4 million to the local economy, which in turn generated about 383 jobs. Those jobs generated about $14.4 million in payroll.

Sheppard noted that in 2007, Mass MoCA had an operating budget of $6.5 million. Ten years later, that budget has grown to $10.5 million. The economic impact in 2007 was about $24 million, he added.

And that’s not all.

Sheppard cited new business investments in the area, such as the former Redwood Motel, Greylock Works, a proposed model railroad museum, and two more hotels proposed in nearby Williamstown.

“Things seem to be happening, and even if just a fraction of these projects actually happen, that’s a real good thing for the region,” Sheppard said. “As a result, barring any major economic dislocation, other firms might also start relocating here. With Mass MoCA here, it’s an easier sell.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick noted that when he was in office from 2007-15, he and his team considered Mass MoCA as much a part of the region’s economic infrastructure as the Hadley Overpass, broadband connections, rail lines and the utility grid. As a result, it was worthy of support from the commonwealth.

One of Patrick’s last actions as governor was to approve the $25.4 million state grant to help the museum fund the completion of Phase III.

“Mass MoCA is good for North Adams and Berkshire County,” he said. “So making it bigger is even better for the region.”

DRIVING LONGER STAYS

Still, the museum sees room for improvement.

Thompson said he wants the museum to do a better job of introducing its visitors to North Adams and the Berkshires, adding that a person spending the night is estimated to spend six times as much as one on a day trip.

Thompson believes that Mass MoCA is no longer a museum a visitor can be in and out of in just a few hours. Couple its expansion with that of the Clark Art Institute in 2015, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Williams College Museum of Art, and other Northern Berkshire cultural attractions, and it becomes increasingly likely that more of its visitors will be staying overnight.

Throughout Phase III, museum officials have openly discussed some disappointments in the economic gains of the city since 1999, but they see momentum building and remain optimistic about what an expanded museum could bring to North Adams.

“There’s no way you could replace all those jobs [at Sprague Electric],” said Hans Morris, chairman of Mass MoCA’s board of trustees. “Those were good, high-paying, manufacturing jobs, and very skilled blue collar labor. But what you’ve got now is a real, to me, tangible momentum. I definitely feel it. I think that is a big change.”

Former Gov. Patrick is of the same mind. “Economic stimulation is never done,” he said. “You should never consider it to be done as tastes, needs, expectations and appetites continue to change. We should always be asking, ‘What’s next?’ ”

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter. Reach staff writer Scott Stafford at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or @BE_SStafford on Twitter.


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