NORTH ADAMS — For more than 100 years, Jeff Levanos’ family has been selling hot dogs downtown at Jack's Hot Dog Stand.
Levanos, the third generation of his family to run the shop, has seen a lot of changes in the more than four decades he has spent in the restaurant.
He remembers when crowds would leave Sprague Electric for lunch and when shops would stay open late on the evenings when Sprague employees would get their paychecks. There were so many people downtown, "It was like being in Manhattan,” Levanos recalled while sitting on a bar stool at the restaurant’s counter on a recent morning, the grill sizzling in the background as his son and others served customers.
The crowds are long gone, but what has remained constant through the years is the turnover in storefronts.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 1999, has helped spur development, but “downtown is still hurting quite a bit,” Levanos said.
An Eagle reporter recently took a stroll through Main, Eagle and Holden streets, speaking with business and property owners about the good, the bad and the empty.
On the single block of Eagle Street, for example, about one-third of the storefronts — at least seven — remain vacant. The Tower and Porter Block, which occupies a massive presence on the street, has been empty for years. The building is a “black hole,” said Glenn Maloney, a property developer and president of the North Adams Chamber of Commerce. Recently, a developer announced plans to redevelop the building into apartments.
Around the corner, on Main Street, a number of large properties also sit vacant, from the long-empty Mohawk Theater to a building that, until this year, housed TD Bank. "For sale" or "for lease" signs sit in the windows of some properties, and the doors of the Dowlin Block, 101-107 Main St., are chained shut.
The problem is layered, those in the business community say, from the challenge of increasing foot traffic to the high cost of renovating old buildings.
“It’s sort of one of those big onions,” business owner and City Councilor Jess Sweeney said. “I think there’s a lot of varying challenges that make downtown difficult.”
At the same time, there is potential movement on some empty properties, like plans to develop a hotel along the Dowlin Block on Main Street and a proposal to renovate the Mohawk. And a number of new businesses have opened in the past year or so, including a secondhand store, plant shop and bookstore.
While there is a lot of progress to be made, many in the downtown business community, Levanos and Sweeney included, remain optimistic.
“It doesn’t look good now, but it’s not as gloom and doom as it looks,” Levanos said. “Right now, it still looks a little bleak,” he said, “But, I seriously believe it’s going to come back.”
Ebbs and flows of downtown
How downtown is doing, “It depends on what you remember,” said Keith Bona, owner of Berkshire Emporium & Antiques and a longtime city councilor. He often talks with customers about the topic.
“I’ll get people who left in the '70s and they come back and say, ‘What happened to the downtown?’” he said. He chats with people who left in the '90s who say, "Wow, things look great."
Business is going well for Bona. He said his sales this past November were twice as high as any November he has had in 18 years. But, he still sees issues downtown.
He has heard it is “Swiss cheesed” — meaning that retail businesses are too spread apart. Aside from two cellphone stores, the closest retail store to Bona is down Main Street and onto either Holden or Eagle streets. It's not necessarily a far walk, but if visitors in his store don't know the area and wander along Main, he thinks that because of the lack of retail, most will lose interest before they make it around the corner and down Eagle to a shop like The Plant Connector.
Bona has been trying to increase the concentration of retail on Main Street — he said he has multiple leases with his landlord, David Carver, and subleases spaces to shops like Savvy Hive, Passage Concept Store and Bailey's Bakery. It leaves Bona with liability, but he likes the control. He wanted to avoid "something boring," he said, standing in front of a shelf in his shop with a giant Oscar Mayer Wienermobile on top of it and next to a wall where a Coca-Cola sign hangs.
"I didn’t want them to get filled with an insurance company or real estate company," he said. "I wanted them to be more attractive for downtown shopping.”
Sweeney rents from Bona for her thrift store, Savvy Hive.
“It really helps sort of allow me to start somewhere without having to make a large investment,” she said. Sweeney also is co-director of the Common Folk Artist Collective, which rents from Carver on Holden Street and is fundraising to buy its storefront.
After moving a number of times in North Adams, the Common Folk Artist Collective launched a campaign to buy its current space and solidify its home on Holden Street.
Compared with other communities, Sweeney feels that downtown rents are affordable, but she worries that that could change. “I do fear prices rising as North Adams becomes more developed. I think that could be more challenging, which is why Common Folk is particularly aggressive in finding a way to purchase our space downtown.”
Sweeney sees the city’s challenges as part of a larger trend.
“This is a problem every rural city faces,” she said. “I really, firmly believe the overarching problem is things like Amazon. … I think that’s really hurt small, independent businesses.”
What makes North Adams different from other rural cities, she said, is that it has a cultural focus and places value on uniqueness, a quality that Mass MoCA has been a large part of spurring.
When Mass MoCA was being developed in the 1990s, some saw it as the “silver bullet” to save downtown, Maloney said. He disagrees — it's not the museum’s responsibility to rejuvenate downtown, he said. “It's our responsibility to have a reason for those people to come to the community … Our job is to give them a reason to want to stay beyond their walls at MoCA.”
"People from Mass MoCA aren’t going to come downtown unless there’s a reason to come downtown," she said. "If they are walking around and half the storefronts are closed, we can't blame them for not staying downtown."
She knows that Common Folk sees an uptick in traffic when the museum has an event — the collective tracks its visitors, and Sweeney said she has three years' worth of data.
When the museum became a destination, “It really helped out downtown," Levanos said.
There are some numbers behind that: In 2017, the museum spurred an estimated $50.8 million in economic activity in the region, according to an estimate from Stephen Sheppard, a Williams College professor of economics.
Mark Moulton, an owner of Moulton’s Spectacle Shoppe on Main Street, wants to entice more museumgoers downtown. When people leave the museum, “They don’t have a reason to come up here,” he said. “We need restaurants, we need the small shops.”
For him, a redeveloped Mohawk is the answer, and it could be the “centerpiece” of downtown.
Not everyone agrees. As someone who grew up in the city, Maloney said it’s "sacrilegious" to say, but “the Mohawk Theater being open is not the fix for our downtown,” he said. “If it were a viable driver, it would have already happened.”
To him, housing is an answer. “The challenge — and this is a 40-year challenge for North Adams — has been critical mass; not enough traffic to create the things we'd all like to envision in this vibrant New England town.”
So, who owns some of those empty properties?
David Carver, owner of the property management company CT Management Group, and property owner and investment company Scarafoni Associates, is a major downtown landlord. He owns spaces on Holden Street, like the ones that house Common Folk and Christo’s Famous Pizza. He developed condos on the upper floors of Holden Street and sold them to “mostly out-of-town folks,” he said, and the lower retail spaces are being sold off over time, he said.
The former Berkshire Juvenile Court on Holden Street, also owned by Carver, sits empty. It’s large — more than 10,000 square feet — and most likely will be subdivided into smaller spaces, Carver said.
Carver also owns spaces on Main Street, like the Berkshire Emporium’s space, and some spaces that are empty, like 77 Main St., former home to Sheer Madness and recently the site of Lynette Bond’s mayoral campaign headquarters.
“We’re talking to some folks about that,” Carver said of 77 Main St. He wants to make sure he finds someone with “talent,” and capital. “I have made mistakes in the past by not making sure people are super-duper qualified,” he said.
Carver also owns the currently empty 53 Main St. — it most recently was occupied with incoming mayor Jennifer Macksey’s campaign headquarters — and he is not sure what will be there next.
The top floors of 85 Main St. are empty. They have been cleared, and Carver said this month that he long has had designs done for market-rate housing there and he was looking for a “creative way to finance it.” Then, the property sold for $1.65 million in mid-December to PKC Capital LLC, according to records from the Berkshire North Registry of Deeds. Drawings for housing were provided to the new owner, Carver said.
Carver thinks housing can help develop downtown.
“I think we need densely populated downtowns,” he said.
But, he is not interested in developing low-income housing.
“I think we need to balance our housing stock better,” he said. And rather than conventional retail or office space, he is more interested in food services. “You can’t buy it on the internet — you can, but you can’t.”
Around the corner from Carver's Main Street properties, the building at 19 Eagle St. has been vacant for more than a decade. A yellow and red "for sale" sign recently was put in the window, and it instructs those interested to call Paul.
That Paul is Paul Grimshaw, who, in the early 2000s, was looking for a building in New England to renovate.
“I envisioned loft apartments and tall ceilings and live workspace and the freedom to create and develop,” he said.
Grimshaw, who lives in Maine, loves North Adams.
“Oh, it's so quaint,” he said. “It's like a little Dickens village there.”
But, about 15 years and more than $200,000 of work on the building later, it still is vacant. The problem with old buildings, Grimshaw said, is that they need a lot of work.
"$368,000 later, my family is having a mutiny," he said, referring to the purchase price and renovation costs.
Now, he hopes he can sell the space so someone else can finish the job.
Down the street, at Main and Eagle streets, there are large "for sale" signs in the corner space’s windows. Moulton co-owns that corner property. The second floor of the building is empty and gutted, he said. Earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, the space’s tenant left and a sale of the space was under contract, Moulton said this month, before the property sold for $200,000.
Not all of the vacant spaces have been sitting empty. In the past year or so, several new businesses have opened downtown. When Birdsong Gallery closed on Eagle Street, an art and wellness business, Solace, recently took its place, and when Man's World Styling Salon closed this year, Pop's Variety moved in.
The city gained a bookstore this summer when The Bear and Bee Bookshop opened on Holden Street.
So far, business is going well — it has one staff member and it thinks it will be close to breaking even in its first year, said Jen Stevens, The Bear and Bee’s co-owner. The owners have not yet taken a salary from their work, but they expected that in the first year, Stevens said. She said she feels lucky on Holden Street, where most buildings are full and there is foot traffic.
There is work to be done to inform visitors that there are shops on Eagle Street, she added.
“I feel bad about saying this, but it's so empty,” Stevens said. When people come to visit, “it looks like this cute, interesting town, and then you start walking and you’re, like, 'Everything is empty.'”
Stevens and her partner and bookstore co-owner, Rye Howard, moved to the city in 2020, drawn to the area for its natural beauty and cultural appeal.
“This is a really quirky and unusual, fun, funky town,” she said.
Near the bookstore, Duncan Russell bought Christo's Famous Pizza after working in the shop, and he took over in November. Russell, also new to the city, felt similarly to Stevens.
“Eagle [Street] concerns me. It looks like dead space, unfortunately,” he said.
At the same time, Russell signed a five-year lease to avoid getting priced out of his space, and he is interested in one day buying the space from Carver.
“I see the potential in this area,” he said. “I think North Adams is going through this identity crisis. … Where do we go from here?"
There are vacant spaces on Eagle Street, The Plant Connector co-owner Emilee Yawn acknowledged. But, she has seen more stores open downtown in the past year, and when the nearby Tower and Porter building is renovated into apartments, “That’s going to be a game changer,” she said.
She opened the Eagle Street business last fall and has sold thousands of plants, mostly to people in Berkshire County.
“I feel like for our town, to evolve, we need stuff here for the community,” she said.
Previously, she lived in San Francisco, where running a local shop would have been totally different. “I think that’s the cool thing about North Adams — there’s room to explore.”
She opens up part of her shop to artists, for example. Currently, WallaSauce, a locally made clothing brand, has a backpack, jacket and other pieces made from recycled soil bags displayed on the walls.
“We can do that, being in a small downtown with reasonable rent,” Yawn said.
Collaborations like that between businesses seem to be on the rise downtown. Businesses have stayed open late for First Fridays, and a number of businesses and local artists sold gifts at a holiday market in an empty Main Street storefront this month. A group of small businesses regularly gets together to talk and collaborate, Stevens said, and several businesses are hosting a gingerbread competition.
At Pop’s Variety, the shop sells some art from Common Folk and hot dogs from Jack’s.
From his perch at Jack's, Levanos felt that downtown was on an upswing before the pandemic hit in March 2020.
The shutdowns and uncertainty that followed changed all that, forcing some Berkshire businesses to close. But, Jack's, which has survived other difficult periods, such as the Great Depression and World War II, still is standing.
The pandemic, he said, "has been my thing to deal with."