NORTH ADAMS — It has been more than six years since Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art visionary Thomas Krens pitched a sprawling new museum focused on model railroads and architecture that would change the landscape of downtown.
Krens said the museum would be "the best of its kind in the world." An economic study later commissioned by the developers found that the project could create 1,400 permanent jobs, generate more than $125 million of economic activity annually and attract more than 1 million visitors.
And yet, that grand vision doesn't yet control the building site it envisions using. While the project has private investment, proponents have not yet conducted a needed capital campaign.
The project — it's dubbed the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum — could open by 2025, according James Pihakis, senior project manager for Global Cultural Asset Management, Krens' consulting firm, which is working on the museum project.
But, work remains.
The site where the proposed museum would be built — it's next to Western Gateway Heritage State Park at the Sons of Italy building — is owned by the city.
In 2017, Krens reached an agreement with the North Adams Redevelopment Authority on an option to purchase Western Gateway Heritage State Park on Furnace Street and the adjacent Sons of Italy building on Christopher Columbus Drive. The option, which later was extended through June 2019, expired, former Mayor Tom Bernard said last year.
"We never successfully negotiated a new option," he said at the time.
The project ran into another setback in 2017, when the state rejected a $5.4 million grant request by the museum and the city of North Adams to demolish the former Sons of Italy building and rehabilitate the two-lane bridge that connects the site to Christopher Columbus Drive.
Pihakis declined to comment on any plans that developers might have to renegotiate a deal with the city for the property.
"I don't want to comment on that for the purposes of the article," he said. "It's a very, very complicated situation."
Mayor Jennifer Macksey said she met with the museum planners this month to get to know them.
Early last year, a committee of city staff reviewing proposals for the redevelopment of the Mohawk Theater wrote in an assessment of a proposal that the model railroad and architecture museum is “a delinquent tenant." A developer, Sincerity Builds LLC, had proposed leasing the theater temporarily to the museum. At the time, the museum owed the city’s Redevelopment Authority more than $12,000, its assessment reads.
“I have received no demand and no request for any payment from the North Adams Redevelopment Authority," Pihakis said. "The first I heard of it was from you."
Kyle Hanlon, who is listed on the city's website as chairman of the Redevelopment Authority, declined to comment. The authority has not had a public meeting in more than a year.
EMRCA Inc. was registered as a corporation with the state, but after not filing annual reports for three years with the secretary of the commonwealth's office, its status as a corporation was revoked at the end of 2021, according to Debra O'Malley, a spokesperson for that office.
Corporations need to register with the state only if they want to be a corporation, otherwise, businesses still can operate as a sole proprietorship, O'Malley said. A corporation's status can be reinstated if it files the overdue reports, she said.
"It's an oversight, and it's been addressed," Pihakis said Thursday of the overdue reports.
Those behind the project still are confident that it eventually will become a reality.
"Right now, I think that it's not overly optimistic to say that a target opening would be 2025," Pihakis said.
"What we need in order to be able to open the museum is to be fully funded, and then we have two years to open."
The museum, a for-profit venture, has 32 investors, according to Pihakis. A fundraising campaign was delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
"In the coming months, we will fully launch that capital campaign," Pihakis said. "It's not overly optimistic to say that we could be fully funded this year and activate the process. But, these things take time — that's the thing that I would also want to stress to the community in general."
Pihakis declined to give figures on the project's cost and how much has been raised.
"It is a major development," he said. "It will cost millions of dollars as a major development."
The Eagle made multiple requests to speak with Krens, chairman and CEO of Global Cultural Asset Management, but he was unavailable for an interview.
The firm's Main Street offices are in the former Sleepy's mattress store. "Cultural Narratives are Infinite and Endless," a sign in the office's window declares. Behind large windows facing Main Street, people work at desks.
"The bread and butter here is the consulting work that we do all over the world," Pihakis said of firm's work. "When we are not working on that, we deploy the same team to work on the [museum] project."
Parallel to the desks is a wall that shields from view detailed plans for the museum and a vision for downtown North Adams.
"This is what we keep hidden away behind the wall," Pihakis said, referring to the models. There is a tiny replica of Big Bling, toy cars sit on the streets, and soon after the former Holiday Inn was sold and rebranded into Hotel Downstreet, the sign on the miniature building changed.
The proposed museum is a sleek silver building planned to be 870 feet long on the property where the former Sons of Italy building is and contain 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, Pihakis said.
The main gallery is planned to be one large, column-less space with 40,000 square feet of LED screen on the walls, 1,200 architectural models, including models of the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Terminal, on display, and 107 trains will run on 10.5 miles of track around the room, Pihakis said. It all will be at a 1-to-48 scale. At that scale, the Empire State Building, for example, will be 37 feet tall.
"The idea is that we're going to treat the design of the architecture and the design of the trains as works of art in and of themselves," Pihakis said. "That's going to take all of the sophistication of an art museum and deploy it in an exhibition that has all the excitement of a theme park."
Pihakis believes that the museum will have "broad appeal" to tourists and local residents.
"We want everyone in North Adams to come here to enjoy it, to feel like it's part of the community. And to feel like it's really the future of economic and cultural development for North Adams," he said. "It does bring with it significant change. And we understand that not everyone wants that change, not everyone's ready for that change."
What the museum will do to feel like part of the community is to be determined.
"That's actually part of the conversation with Mayor Macksey as well, is how we can best accomplish that," Pihakis said.
In addition to the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, the group has ideas for developing the city that include a distillery and museum of time based on railroad clocks at Western Gateway Heritage State Park. They also envision developing a luxury spa and hotel and creating an art museum that displays work that people have invested in.
"The idea here is that you buy into a hedge fund that is purchasing artworks for its collection," Pihakis said.
"What we've proposed is that you would build a physical exhibition space for it, and you'd have people come in, and it's on display and available to the public instead of being locked away in storage."