Next act for Mohawk Theater? Request for proposals could be coming soon
NORTH ADAMS — Could this be the right time?
More than 25 years after it closed, and countless hours spent by city officials, mayors and volunteers working to find a new life for the vacant Mohawk Theater, it continues to evade redevelopment.
Now, Mayor Thomas Bernard wants to outsource the theater's vision and consider resting its future with someone else.
Next week, Bernard will ask the City Council to declare the building as no longer serving a municipal purpose — thus allowing him to issue a request for proposals. "One of the reasons is because it was something that last year I said I wanted to pursue, and there was a public meeting held and I wanted to take the next step on that," Bernard said. "One of the other reasons is that the city has, for lack of a better word, has been holding [The Mohawk] in trust for a couple of decades."
Purchasing and holding onto The Mohawk following its closure was "probably a necessary act of stewardship," Bernard said, but the city has recently seen renewed economic activity and investment from a private sector that could have similar interest in the Mohawk.
"There are people out there with ideas that are worth exploring," Bernard said.
It's possible that, should the city issue a request for proposals, it will receive little interest, Bernard noted.
Should the council vote in favor of Bernard's request on Tuesday, it would empower him to largely decide the theater's future on his own. Aside from a typical planning review process, decisions regarding the RFP will be made administratively. Bernard has been careful not to express a preference for the future of the property, and stated his openness to new ideas.
The council would only be involved in approving a winning bid if it were to come in at a price less than the assessed value of the building — currently $446,400.
"An RFP isn't a suggestion box, it's somebody saying, 'We have a credible proposal,'" Bernard said. "Part of the job that I have and my team has is to conduct this business and to do these evaluations. I wouldn't anticipate that there would be a community meeting on a proposal."
Third time's the charm?
Bernard is the third mayor to explore a reuse for the historic theater since its closure in 1991, which was followed by 25 years of securing grant funds, reviewing feasibility studies and exploring potential partnerships.
The theater itself — built and operated as a movie house — presents an array of logistical challenges to renewed use.
But the vacant theater continues to be seen as an elusive anchor for the revitalization of the city's downtown, and a biennial topic of conversation during every mayoral campaign.
Though a political newcomer, Bernard not only studied the topic during his mayoral campaign, but also worked at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as it considered utilizing the theater earlier this decade. "I'm versed in the history but I'm also versed in the fact that small theaters are a tough proposition because you need to separate the capital investment from the operating,and find a way to make the ticket sales not just support the operation but the money that you sunk into the space," Bernard said.
Substantive programming would likely require engineering and new construction, Bernard noted. A smaller-scale operation would probably be less costly, but still involve work.
The 1,200-seat, single-balcony historic theater on Main Street opened in 1938 and operated as a movie house and occasional concert venue for decades, eventually closing in 1991. But for years prior to its closure, the privately owned theater was plagued by issues ranging from periodic closures to failure to pay taxes.
Upon its final closure, then-mayor John Barrett saw the historical and cultural significance of the theater and its potential for economic impact.
"Anybody who lived in the Northern Berkshire area had some kind of affiliation with the Mohawk Theater," Barrett said.
Years of stops and starts
The city has poured effort and resources into the Mohawk Theater over more than 15 years.
In 1992, the city helped fund roof repairs.
The theater was coming up for auction, and the city hatched a plan. The city purchased the failing theater with $75,000 in financial assistance from Walmart in 1996, seeking to avoid seeing the property go up for auction. Walmart was then opening a new store on the outskirts of the city. Barrett believed the retailer should chip in to support the downtown, particularly the Mohawk.
"Like anything else, you don't know what you're going to do with it, but I did see it was going to be an integral part of the downtown," Barrett said, noting that it could serve as a catalyst for the revitalization of Eagle Street.
The city later acquired the front building — separate from the main theater but home to the marquee, theater entrance, and stairway to the balcony — for $205,000 from the Moulton family.
In 1998, Barrett won federal funding for a feasibility study, which determined that the building had severe deficiencies but could ultimately be rehabilitated. The following year, the city won a grant to fix up the theater's iconic Main Street marquee, installing new lights.
"Things that we originally thought could do in there couldn't," Barrett said.
Performing arts would be a challenge, Barrett noted, because the theater did not have green rooms for artists and would compete with theaters like the Colonial in Pittsfield and Mahaiwe in Great Barrington. But Barrett believed that in addition to movies, the theater could broadcast live performances and host small theater productions, as well as conferences and other events.
In 2005, then-U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy presented the city with a $2 million federal grant to help revitalize the theater and street around it.
In total, the city invested more than $3.5 million in the theater during his administration, Barrett estimated, not including $2.2 million in federal and state historic tax credits. To be eligible for these credits, a for-profit corporation would be formed to run the theater — though it would "always fall back to the city if they failed."
"A for-profit would have signed a deal where they would pay us a rent," Barrett said. "Prior to that happening, you needed public money."
Through a donation, the city acquired the property that is now home to the pocket park on Eagle Street. The city hoped it would connect to the Mohawk Theater — to the benefit of Eagle Street businesses.
"The key to the downtown still is the Mohawk Theater and the development of it," Barrett said. "I believe that as much today as I did 10 years ago."
Barrett believes the model designed by his administration would still be viable today, but his vision and approach to the theater left the corner office with him.
Failed partnership for MCLA
When Mayor Richard Alcombright took the helm in 2010, his efforts centered on a partnership with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Alcombright envisioned the college's Fine and Performing Arts Department utilizing the theater as a base of operations, with student housing and offices located in the building next door.
He imagined "MCLA Fine and Performing Arts" on the building's iconic marquee.
"For me, that captured everything," Alcombright said.
But due to financial realities, the concept never came to fruition.
"What MCLA would have to provide in cash resources to make that happen every year was kind of a nonstarter," Alcombright said.
Alcombright sought a line item in the state budget to support MCLA's downtown endeavor, but the funding never materialized. The conversations fizzled when former MCLA President Mary K. Grant departed in 2014.
In his final years in office, Alcombright prioritized privatizing city-owned properties like the former Sullivan School and Department of Public Works building. Had he remained in office for another term, Alcombright said he'd likely take the same path that Bernard is now.
"Had I stayed in office, certainly I was positioned that it would have been my next RFP for privatization," Alcombright said. "It didn't appear there was really any governmental solution."
To Alcombright, the timing of the RFP is just right, taking advantage of economic momentum in the city. But the Mohawk Theater will be a challenge for any developer.
"It's a behemoth of a building and no matter how you look at it, you're into it for millions and millions of dollars," Alcombright said.
Adam Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.
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