Felix Carroll: On Election Day in North Adams, it's one for the mayor's scrapbook

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NORTH ADAMS — In a city passionate about its vibrant past and promising future, the man presently in charge is talking about taking a drive to get a look at the big picture.

Mayor Dick Alcombright, who voted for his successor Tuesday, having announced last summer he wouldn't seek a fifth term, prefers the big picture afforded from the old Wigwam Western Summit lookout on Route 2.

"From up there, it looks like we're this little community in the palm of God's hand," Alcombright says. "Berkshire Hills on one side, the Green Mountains on the other. It's gorgeous here. But it's taken me time to realize how urban we are."

Yes, that's a city down there surrounded in green — one he has overseen for the past eight years, one in which he was born and raised, one that has all the problems of any city, and a whole lot of advantages few cities could ever even hope for.

A city that he'll hand over to new leadership Jan. 1, at a swearing-in ceremony at City Hall. There will be an article about it in the newspaper, and Alcombright's 93-year-old-mother, Bernice "Red" Alcombright, will dutifully cut it out and append it to the journals she has kept on his mayoral career: 12 notebooks total, about 4 inches thick each. That includes letters to the editor that have ripped him to shreds.

"I'm like, `Ma!'" the mayor says. "And she says, `Well, you'll want to read it someday.' Yeah, and I want to put glass shards under my eyelids and blink, too. She's a hoot, and a good lady."

"He's a good boy," she says. "Everyone loves Dickie. He's a treasure."

Alcombright has his detractors. But not many. North Adams is home to a devoted citizenry of natives and young, hepcat transplants more inclined these days to see the promise in all those attributes that comprise that big picture.

On paper, the city remains among the state's poorest communities. And, while its economic hardships and drug-related crime cannot be disregarded, they hardly define this northern hub of Berkshire County — a hotbed of arts and education, a home to historic architecture, a base camp to all things outdoors, and an exception to the Berkshires' high cost of living.

Still, the past haunts, the future rouses, and the present seems pulled in both directions. It's no wonder that one of Alcombright's favorite eateries is The Hub on Main Street. Old photos hang on the walls showing North Adams as a prosperous mill town of roughly 22,000 people; back before the mills shut down in the 1980s, obliterating 6,000 jobs; back before the population dwindled to 13,600.

The photos depict Main Street alive with commotion and commerce. Shiny cars with curved fenders and wide-eyed headlights ply down the canyon of grand, multistory brick buildings with detailed facades. If you lean in close enough, you swear you can see among the well-dressed pedestrians a headstrong and kind-tempered George Bailey of Bedford Falls, the iconic hero of the 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life."

Alcombright, 63, whose background parallels that of George Bailey, too, was a local boy made good — a family man, father of four (including a priest), a former banker and, yes, a guardian of his city.

But enough nostalgia.

"The truth is," says Alcombright, "quite honestly, I like the city better now. We're a better place than we were back in the 1960s when I was a kid. We're [environmentally] cleaner. We have opportunities that will make us more economically sustainable."

As Alcombright's tenure has underscored, North Adams' present and future rest upon capitalizing on what already exists. After all, this is home to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, ranked in the top 10 public liberal arts colleges in the country. It's home to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, among the largest contemporary art museums in the world. And the multimillion-dollar expansion of Harriman-and-West Airport coincides with a fast-growing reputation for aircraft maintenance and avionics.

Alcombright took over City Hall's corner office in 2010, when the city was in an economic hole. This past year marked the city's fourth successive balanced budget. "And we have two million bucks in reserves," Alcombright says. "Turning that financial ship was big."

Among his accomplishments, the four-term mayor took the lead in championing a renovation project at the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School, now Colegrove Park Elementary School. He spearheaded tax deals with the developers of the Greylock Mill and Crane Stationery, among other properties. He worked with the North Adams Redevelopment Authority to negotiate an option to purchase Western Gateway Heritage State Park for the proposed Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum. He helped secure funding to extend a bike trail from North Adams into Williamstown, which is scheduled for completion in 2021.

He's the first to acknowledge that he didn't fulfill a campaign promise to renovate the old Mohawk Theater. That's one his successor will inherit.

And, yes, there's the issue of crime.

"It's a problem," he says. "I'm not going to sit here and say we don't have a problem. People say 'More cops.' We could always use more cops. But you're not going to arrest away problems caused by drugs, hopelessness, poverty, lack of education. You have to find ways to help — what services can be provided, impose some social relief."

Alcombright is stepping down, he says, because "the city has been under the leadership of two mayors for the last 34 years. It's time for eager, bright, young faces with great ideas. And we have them."

He plans to head back into the private sector. Someday, he'll retire altogether, and he might pack up and head out west, maybe Utah, maybe the Dakotas. Apparently, the views are pretty good out there, too.

"I've never lived anywhere but here," he says. "I could see heading out into the big country while I still have some years left in me."

In the meantime, he's now a grandfather to two infant granddaughters. He takes care of his mother, his biggest fan.

"Let me just tell you one story," she says, sitting at her kitchen table on Massachusetts Avenue. "He was the best of kids. He was 8, 9 years old, and he'd take the laundry off the line and fold it and put it away. The other kids would be playing ball, and he'd be setting the table and getting everything in order. And then there was the time ..."

Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com.


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