Our Opinion: Krens' ambitious vision for Northern Berkshire

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If world-renowned art entrepreneur and Williamstown resident Thomas Krens is to be believed, North Adams may eventually rival Orlando's Disney World as a destination for the American family. Mr. Krens, a former Williams College art professor, has experience turning unlikely dreams into reality: As former head of New York's Guggenheim Museum, he inspired and shepherded that institution's expansion into a Frank Gehry-designed branch in Bilbao, Spain that many consider one of the world's architectural masterpieces. His display of motorcycles as art at the Guggenheim's New York base created a storm in the museum world while becoming one of the most successful exhibits in its history.

In other words, Mr. Krens, who was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Mass MoCA, is a person who should be listened to when his panoramic visionary juices begin flowing. His latest concept for pulling the Steeple City out of its economic doldrums combines several of his dreams into one vast undertaking, incorporating the much-heralded Extreme Model Railroad and Architecture Museum he envisions for the downtown area, the Global Contemporary Art Museum originally slated for Harriman-West Airport, a parking facility that can double as an art space, a luxury hotel and spa, restoration of the Mohawk Theater, some 3-D movie venues and possibly a motorcycle museum thrown in for good measure.

That's a pretty full plate, but much of Mr. Krens' success to date stems from his understanding of the nexus between private investment and art, and his North Adams vision takes full advantage of exotic tax-reduction formulas appreciated by those with plenty of spare funds to plow into such undertakings, such as providing relief from capital gains taxes when monies are invested in designated economic opportunity zones located in distressed areas.

Mr. Krens, who has not yet worked out the precise details of the plan's implementation, anticipates private investment of $28 million with another $10 million from "other sources" (presumably, public funds and tax incentives) to launch the for-profit undertaking. His anticipated $180 million boost to the local economy providing 2,000 jobs may or may not be realistic, but the key is that, should the project even be only partially realized, the preponderance of its funding would come from private investment. Should it fail completely, the harm done to North Adams would be minimal if the city's buy-in were in the form of tax incentives to would-be investors.

It's important that each component of the project not be so linked together that the fate of one impacts another. The railroad and architecture museum, for example, would probably enhance North Adams as a tourist destination when paired with Mass MoCA as part of a dual attraction. It's success should not be dependent upon the success of, for example, the art museum. While it is encouraging to see that the museum would move downtown where it would be of greater help to the city than it would out by the airport, the struggling Heritage Park doesn't appear to play a key role in the Krens vision beyond a proposed Massachusetts Museum of Time. It isn't clear yet how his plan for a renovated Mohawk Theater would be fleshed out but indications are that he doesn't see it as a movie theater.

Presumably we'll know a lot more as the project goes forward, and it's hard to see how its encouragement would disadvantage the city, as long as it didn't suck all the oxygen out of the air for less ambitious projects that might already be in the pipeline. It would behoove Mayor Thomas Bernard and the rest of North Adams' municipal government, as well as officials in Williamstown and Adams, to do their best to encourage the proposal while prudently safeguarding community interests in the process.

Mr. Krens sees this project as the culmination of an economic renaissance that Mass MoCA only started. His goal of making the region "the No. 1 cultural destination in the United States" is impressively ambitious, and if successful, even in part, this project could have a transforming impact on North Berkshire that will indelibly change the economic landscape for the better.

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