Getting on the right track: North Adams officials pin Heritage Park hopes on new museum
NORTH ADAMS — Officials are keeping hope alive that Western Gateway Heritage State Park can be a catalyst for major economic development.
After a years-long effort to create The Greylock Market failed, the sparsely occupied park is now the canvas of Thomas Krens, the man credited with conceiving of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art more than two decades ago.
The Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum could inject $12 million into the Northern Berkshire economy in its first two years and provide $500,000 in annual rent to the park's manager, the North Adams Redevelopment Authority, according to an initial concept development study released by Krens' team.
As the project takes shape, North Adams is offering help by providing Krens and his team with free office space at the publicly owned park.
The space is the redevelopment authority's contribution to the public-private partnership that, like the Greylock Market proposal before it, Mayor Richard Alcombright hopes can take the Heritage State Park out of the city's hands.
The mayor wants to see it rejuvenated by the private sector.
"We have zero activity there. Let's put it in perspective," Alcombright said of the proposed museum's office space. "If we had a paying tenant that would fit within the mission of the park, then we would rent the space."
In contrast, a new syringe exchange operated by nonprofit Tapestry Health in a nearby building will pay the Redevelopment Authority $600 per month.
Krens and his team are responsible only for utilities and taxes in their space in buildings one and two at Heritage State Park. That is where they are planning a model railroad and architecture museum they believe could draw more than 300,000 visitors into downtown North Adams annually.
Benjamin Sosne, a project manager for the museum, said the rent-free space is the city's contribution to the collaborative effort.
"The city doesn't have resources to write any checks," he said.
The space used by the museum staff has been "absolutely critical" to their work, giving staff room to begin making models.
The models give the staff physical representations of the museum to show potential investors and partners, according to Sosne.
"You can't simply take this on the road ... it's ultimately [about] getting people here," he said.
The concept of the museum can be "exceptionally hard to articulate," Sosne said. "It's very hard for people to envision."
The decision not to charge rent — made by Alcombright — and to back the model railroad museum comes as the North Adams Redevelopment Authority, which oversees park operations, has allocated most of its reserves.
It doesn't have funds to invest in the park's aging infrastructure.
Alcombright would like to have an outside entity take over operations Western Gateway Heritage State Park, freeing the city from that duty.
Paul Hopkins, chairman of the authority board, backs the approach the mayor and his staff are taking on the park.
"I expect we will be successful," Hopkins said.
In 2016, the redevelopment authority borrowed $160,000 from Berkshire Bank but had to use $125,671 from its reserves to pay a long-overdue judgment to the Freight Yard Pub, a long-time park tenant that had sued (and won) over restricted parking access during construction on the Hadley Overpass.
The authority now has about $35,000 in cash on hand and four rent-paying tenants.
The authority brings in $5,750 per month in rent, but its loan payments to Berkshire Bank are $2,200 per month. At that rate, it would take years to build up the redevelopment authority's reserves back to pre-lawsuit levels, and any major infrastructure issues could set it even further back.
When he first took office, Alcombright said he had planned to used redevelopment authority funds to make a major investment in the park, citing need for improvement in windows, roofs, and siding throughout the park.
"Back six years ago my first thought was invest money into the properties to get them where they need to be physically," Alcombright said. "At the end of the day when we came into it, $300,000 would not have put a coat of paint on it."
"Assuming no catastrophic failures of systems over there, we're OK for a while," Alcombright said.
Announced in December 2015, the museum would be built within Heritage State Park, which would again be positioned as a hub of tourist-related activities ranging from a rail car cafe to a distillery.
The museum is one of three developments Krens proposes on public property in North Adams.
He has also pitched construction of a Global Contemporary Art Museum on the grounds of Harriman and West Airport and renovating the Mohawk Theater on Main Street.
The museum project is a partnership among the city of North Adams, the North Adams Redevelopment Authority, local nonprofit North Adams Partnership, EMRCA, Inc., and the Krens-founded Global Cultural Asset Management company.
The museum has completed its first phase. It had been envisioned with a public-private model similar to that of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which has received substantial state investment.
The railroad museum now appears unlikely to secure comparable funding. But with city support the museum was awarded a $250,000 MassWorks grant last year — backed by the city —t o help fund the second phase of its planning, coupled with $500,000 in private funding.
Earlier, Alcombright linked the future of the Heritage State Park to The Greylock Market. In that effort, a group of investors proposed revamping the park into a mixed-use artisan hub of housing, makerspaces and commercial space.
As it has with Krens, the city also backed and received a MassWorks grant in 2012, this one totaling $880,000 for improvements to the park's infrastructure and landscaping.
The project failed to take off financially despite years of planning and negotiating.
The administration and the redevelopment authority's board are hoping for a different outcome this time.
"It is the current hope, and right now it's continuing to progress in a way that's good," Alcombright said. "Our Heritage Park is like our [skating] rink, it runs marginally. We try to keep it going, we try to keep our costs contained and just try to eek it out."
"I think the community is excited at the prospect of creating another world-class destination in North Adams," Hopkins said.
Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.