Massachusetts Cultural Council designates downtown North Adams a 'cultural district'

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NORTH ADAMS — An effort years in the making has finally paid off.

The city was awarded a cultural district designation from the Massachusetts Cultural Council on Tuesday.

When the Cultural Council launched the program five years ago, a city like North Adams "was really in our imagination from the very beginning," said Massachusetts Cultural Council Executive Director Anita Walker during a reception following the decision at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Though no funding is guaranteed with the Cultural District designation, city officials see it as a mark of progress, continuation of the city's forward momentum and a way to build on existing cultural assets like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

"It connects us with a larger organization," Helme said. "It gives us more validity and teeth."

It also allows North Adams to collaborate with a network of more than 40 communities across the state, Helme noted.

"It's another big arrow in our quiver of who we are and who we want to be long-term," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, adding that the designation provides exposure for the city.

The district encompasses most of the city's downtown and roughly borders River Street to the north, Church Street to the east, Marshall Street on the West and stretches south enough to include the Western Gateway Heritage State Park.

After winning the designation, Helme said the next steps are a meeting with representatives from each of the designated communities in October and meeting with local stakeholders locally.

Williamstown and Pittsfield also have designated cultural districts. Pittsfield, who was among the first communities to win the designation five years ago, won a renewal of its status on Tuesday.

To earn the designation, which was sparked years ago by Berkshire Cultural Resource Center staff and picked up again last year, the city had to host Cultural Council leaders and pitch the district.

The city also needed to earn the support of its City Council and to submit a detailed application to the Cultural Council.

Walker said that North Adams has a "real and authentic story" of reinterpretation and reinvention, including that of the former Sprague Electric Co. into Mass MoCA.

The district in North Adams, she added, "combines so many things that are attractive" to the council.

"That kind of energy speaks to us," she said.

After a site visit with Cultural Council officials, the city adjusted its proposal to shrink the district's borders. In doing so, it cut out the Eclipse Mill on Union Street and no longer encompasses the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Campus.

One critique during the site visit, which occurred earlier this year, was the city's lack of downtown retail.

That problem will be among the first issues discussed by leaders in the district in upcoming meetings, Helme said.

"I am literally speechless sometimes, where you look at things keep going...it's game-changing," said State Sen. Adam Hinds, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development.

Thompson said arts and education is "becoming increasingly important" to the Berkshires, and credited the Massachusetts Cultural Council with helping to support them.

"Those of us in the Berkshires really understand how work by the MCC is not like frosting on the cake, it's sinew and blood and bones and muscle," Thompson said.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter


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