Grand plans in North Adams

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NORTH ADAMS — Legendary architect Frank Gehry's involvement in the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum was formally announced on Friday, but actually began years ago.

One day, Gehry heard from his old partner and new museum founder Thomas Krens, who was building a model railroad for his son's birthday and wanted a building model to go along with it.

"I sent him a big model, and then I never heard from him," Gehry said. "The next call was 'we're going to do a model railroad museum.'"

Krens convinced Gehry to work on a fifth museum project with him — this time in North Adams, for the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum.

"He is, without a doubt in my mind, the greatest architect in the world," Krens said. "His involvement not only brings that accumulated stature, but it also brings a razor-sharp creativity."

Gehry, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, and Krens were joined by local officials at a press conference in Western Gateway Heritage State Park on Friday to celebrate Gehry's involvement in the train museum project and the latest additions to Krens' mammoth plan to revitalize North Adams.

The proposal — centered around the for-profit Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture museum Krens first announced in 2015 — now includes a Museum of American Art, Art of the Motorcycle Museum, and a new pedestrian bridge between all three.

Totaling an estimated $300 million and comprising 11 components, the citywide redevelopment plan aims at creating a "cultural corridor" between North Adams and Williamstown, leveraging existing Northern Berkshire assets like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and Clark Art Institute.

"The Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum — it's easy to be blinded by all the dazzle there, but there are a lot of parts here," Weld said of the cultural corridor development plan. "They will totally transform the Williamstown, North Adams area."

These additions come atop the already-massive vision Krens has laid out, including a renovated Mohawk Theater and luxury hotel on Main Street, the creation of a Global Contemporary Art Museum at the Harriman and West Airport.

The linchpin of the plan is the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, which is slated to be designed by Gehry at the site of the former Sons of Italy building on Christopher Columbus Drive.

The Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum would feature precisely-scaled replicas of trains and notable architecture — such as the Empire State Building — creating a miniature world in a theme park-like environment. North Adams, the museum's proponents argue, is the perfect location for such a museum given its industrial and railroad-rich history.

The adjacent Western Gateway Heritage State Park will also be redeveloped as part of the proposal, including with the previously-announced Massachusetts Museum of Time and Mount Greylock Craft Distillery.

In an analysis of the potential economic impact of a fully-realized plan, Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard estimated that it could result in the addition of more than 1,400 permanent jobs to the area and generate more than $125 million of economic activity annually.

The museum itself, Sheppard estimated, could bring in more than 500,000 visitors annually.

"It's a very unambiguous, clear impact," Sheppard said. "This is a great opportunity for North Adams and it's really encouraging and exciting to see the town continue to move forward."

Krens is credited with being the first to propose the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. He spent two decades at the helm of the Solomon R. Guggenheim foundation before departing in 2008.

Gehry and Krens have frequently collaborated throughout their careers, including on the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. He was the first architect hired to consult Mass MoCA.

"It turns out we couldn't afford him," Krens said.

Gehry signed on to design the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture museum in May, but it was not publicized until this week.

Mayor Richard Alcombright noted Gehry's success throughout the world.

"I know you've done projects all around the world and your work is revered. We are honored to have you here," Alcombright said.

According to a recent grant application, the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture museum has raised about $2.5 million of the $65 million it needs to carry out its plans on the Sons of Italy Building and Western Gateway Heritage State Park, with 20 investors, according to Krens. It expects to have the remainder raised by June of 2018.

"I think were in a good position to develop it and we'll see what happens in the next few years," Krens said.

When raising $65 million for a project, Krens believes it helps to have a renowned architect's name attached to it.

"The project is sophisticated. I think Frank's presence in it is going to bring a certain amount of international attention and international credibility," Krens said.

Also, the museum's proponents believe it's a solid investment.

"We're expecting that if we hit the numbers that Prof. Sheppard has uncovered in his economic impact analysis, this could make a serious amount of money for investors," Krens said.

Weld said with between 500,000 and 700,000 annual visitors, the internal rate of return would be 25 percent — "which may not be in the stratosphere of the private equity world, but it's plenty good enough for most investors."

In collaboration with the city, the group is asking for a $5.4 million MassWorks grant to demolish the Sons of Italy building and perform infrastructure improvements on the property, including a new bridge on Christopher Columbus Drive.

Last year, the project won a $250,000 MassWorks grant to fund the museum's continued development.

Under the timeline laid out on the grant application, the museum believes it could begin work on the site as early as March of 2018.

The group anticipates more than half of the funding for the project will come from private fundraising and roughly a quarter from bank financing.

It has already negotiated an option to purchase the Sons of Italy and Western Gateway Heritage State Park with the North Adams Redevelopment Authority for $1.2 million earlier this year, but it is unclear when the group will be able to exercise that option.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks


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