North Adams mayor asks planning volunteer to scale back online efforts using Mohawk Theater name

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NORTH ADAMS — An advocate pushing for the renovation of the city-owned Mohawk Theater has been cautioned about his methods amid concerns that he was forging ahead without the city's explicit permission.

Geeg Wiles, who is among the volunteers planning a TEDx conference at the historic theater next month, has been actively working on a number of fronts in support of the city. But he has come under scrutiny for a number of efforts relating to the theater, including launching a new website and Facebook page for the theater.

The website, however, did not initially disclose that it was not associated with the city, and included links to fundraising efforts without identifying who would receive the proceeds.

In a recent email to Wiles, Mayor Richard Alcombright requested that he "wait to have discussions with the next administration."

"This is a city owned venue under the control of the city administration [and] it cannot be commandeered by anyone or any group without authorization, contracts, leases, etc.," Alcombright wrote.

City officials have received emails expressing concerns about Wiles' activities, which also prompted a complaint to the City Council last week by Julia Dixon, an independent creative economy consultant.

"This group doesn't seem to be prioritizing community, they're prioritizing ownership," Dixon told The Eagle. "The Mohawk Theater development shouldn't be a race to the key to the front door."

Michelle Daly, director of the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, emailed the city with concerns about a group claiming ownership of the Theater.

"When I reached out [to Wiles] for clarifying information I was informed that there is a plan but that I do not need to know what it is," Daly wrote. "I know there is renewed interest in the Mohawk, but I'm concerned that they are soliciting donations and claiming to work at the Mohawk."

The issue revolves around three different volunteer groups, in which the participants often overlap but claim to have separate purposes. The lines between them have blurred.

TEDxNorthAdams is a volunteer effort to hold a speaking event in the city, and has a website and Facebook page moderated by Benjamin Lamb, the City Council's president, and Keifer Gammell. The group announced last week that it will hold its first-ever TEDx conference in the theater on Jan. 27.

A second group, Cultural Revitalization of North Adams (CRONA), was launched last month with its own Facebook page and website.

And Wiles also has launched a new website and Facebook page for the Mohawk Theater.

Wiles is connected to all three groups and manages the web presence of CRONA and the Mohawk Theater page, which he created in September. He said he has assembled dozens of community stakeholders to launch a new effort to revive the historic theater, but he dismissed the notion of being a leader and claimed not to be seeking personal credit.

The new Mohawk website did not include any disclaimer that it is not managed by the city until Thursday evening. It features a main page and an events page, which listed the TEDx talk on Jan. 27 as the only upcoming event.

"This site will go through many changes over the next few months," the site states. "For now, the goal of this site is to show what an amazing building this used to be, what is happening with it currently, and what could happen with it in the future."

Shortly before last week's City Council meeting, Alcombright sent Wiles an email insisting he either take down the pages or put a disclaimer that they are not related to the city in anyway.

He also asked that Wiles make "clear and obvious disclosure at the link to donations... that donations are not going to the City of North Adams for the Mohawk."

He added there should be disclosure that the donations would not be tax exempt unless it is a registered nonprofit, which it is not.

The donations page is no longer on the website.

In his emailed response to the mayor, Wiles explained that the donation button was actually intended for the CRONA website "for non-Mohawk related things." (Copies of the emails were provided to The Eagle by city officials.)

"Releasing so much this week, I overlooked which was where, but know it is now gone," Wiles wrote.

Suzy Helme, the city's director of community events, emailed Wiles and Lamb to raise additional issues on Wednesday.

"We are concerned that the Mohawk site, even now, offers a hours `by appointment.' The city has in no way given this permission for this and we are restricting further access," Helme wrote, also requesting a key to the building be returned to the city.

"I completely understand and appreciate that all intentions connected to this effort are honest and good natured, but at this point we are not comfortable with the loose access to the theater," she wrote.

Beneath a space to sign up for "updates," the bottom of the Mohawk website read "Copyright 2017 Mohawk Theater - All Rights Reserved," but there is no corporate or nonprofit entity registered with the state under the Mohawk Theater. It now states "Copyright 2017 'Whatever makes people less mad as a title.'"

Wiles describes his working group as "Mohawk LLC," though acknowledged it is not actually an LLC.

"It's just what I put at the top of the page. I didn't know anybody was going to be so heated about this," Wiles said. "These are all hypotheticals; we have months and months before this could even be on the table."

The Mohawk Theater Facebook page was launched on Nov. 21 and is moderated by Wiles. It now features a disclaimer that reads, in all capital letters, "In no way, shape, and/or form is this page associated with the City of North Adams."

With all of the attention the Mohawk will receive by holding the TEDx event, Wiles said that if he didn't launch a Facebook page somebody else would have.

"I didn't even have time to put an `about us' page on the FB page before people were already critiquing it. I just got these things to lay dormant [and leave] little Easter eggs or trailers to what's to come in the coming months or even a year, who knows how long, and everyone already ripped it apart."

There is a website for the Mohawk Theater at mohawktheater.com, but Wiles described it as dormant.

"I wanted for people visiting this [TEDx] event a very clear-cut page that's a little more modern," he said.

Wiles has apologized to city officials.

"I wasn't trying to cause any issues with them. I'm active in the community but I'm new to the process," Wiles said. "I wasn't trying to ask for forgiveness later instead of permission."

He describes the CRONA group as separate from his Mohawk efforts, but some of their goals do overlap.

CRONA lists itself as a "nonprofit" on its Facebook page, which also launched in November, but is not a registered 501c3. It describes itself as "a group of cronies for the betterment of the culture and community we want to continue to grow in North Adams."

On Nov. 26, CRONA shared a TEDxNorthAdams Facebook post and added the caption "We are hitting the ground running!!!"

As with mohawktheater.org, the website includes a copyright claim on behalf of "The CRONA," but no such organization is legally formed.

"CRONA is really just a bunch of good deeds done by community members," Wiles said.

But on its website, CRONA describes as one of its three goals "physically revitalizing neglected and abandoned spaces in the community. Developing business plans, through a phased conceptual construct, for sustainability and modern outlook on cultural relics."

Wiles said he wanted the group to be leaderless, but because of the concerns aired this week has taken on the role of "point person" for the group.

The group's initial efforts were to clean up alleyways surrounding the Mohawk Theater and leaving out a rack of free hats and scarves in front of it.

"Obviously the alleyway we've chosen to clean up around was the Mohawk because we're going to hold an event there in January, so why not kill two birds with one stone?" Wiles said.

Volunteers behind the TEDx event have sought to make clear that the event is not being held there for the purpose of raising money to renovate the building.

"Every dollar brought in goes directly to the execution of the event. It's not only the model we are working under, but it is a strict requirement by TED to maintain our license with them," said Lamb, who helped organize the event.

Wiles acknowledges that he, and many others in the community, play multiple roles.

"The CRONA thing ... is like a little subset of everything we're doing. All of these small groups like the North Adams Exchange, the initiative for Eagle Street, all of them have members that cross over and help. ... That's where the lines are blurring."

Ideally, Wiles said he'd like to see everything under the same umbrella one day.

"That's just a lot more efficient and less work, but these are [now] all very separate matters," he said.

Alcombright, who will pass the baton to Thomas Bernard as the city's new mayor next month, urged Wiles to follow a deliberate path.

"I wish you nothing but success," he wrote in his email, "but please keep in mind that in dealing with a public entity, you have to first align yourself with public process."

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-496-6376.


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