Questions follow abrupt exit of North Adams dog museum founder
NORTH ADAMS — David York has a bone to pick with the city of North Adams.
York says his efforts to launch the Museum of Dog and other ventures were obstructed by the city — and people — of North Adams. But those who interacted with York until his abrupt departure last fall say he brought his problems on himself.
York's canine-crazy museum on Union Street rapidly attracted media attention and local buzz when it opened last spring. But as quickly as he bought and built up a museum, downtown restaurant, a pair of limousines, food trucks and more, York abruptly left the Berkshires — losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate investments and leaving the city to wonder: What happened?
In taking his show on the road, York left a trail of baffled former employees, city officials and community leaders who struggle to reconcile the public perception York sought to create with the way he conducted his businesses.
York claims the city of North Adams obstructed his attempts at revitalizing the downtown with several businesses. He said in the course of several interviews with The Eagle that he chose to speak out to encourage smarter business practices in North Adams, particularly in regard to Main Street.
But interviews with more than a dozen city officials, former employees and community leaders who interacted with York during his year-long stay in the northern Berkshires offer a picture that contrasts with the Instagram-ready image York sought to present in North Adams.
The Eagle spoke with two of York's former employees on the condition they not be named, in part because they were paid in cash and fear legal consequences of that.
People interviewed described a businessman who always worked on a new project before finishing the last, exaggerated his successes and was constantly worried that city officials or his own employees conspired against him. York showed little patience for routine regulatory steps.
"It's not that I have unreasonable expectations or didn't want to play by the rules, but the rules are crazy," York said.
City officials say York didn't follow well-established rules and was treated like anyone else.
"I don't credit the idea that it was the city being uncooperative," said Mayor Thomas Bernard. "I can't speak to his experience in other places, but regardless of where you are there are going to be a set of guidelines to follow."
York believes that he — an outsider — was treated differently than a person more connected to the community would have been. "One big issue I just found in North Adams is that if you're going to deal with City Hall and that entity, they really like when local people do it and not when out-of-towners come to town," York told The Eagle. To York, the evidence is right there in empty downtown storefronts like the former Sleepy's mattress store when he hoped to place a temporary exhibit.
"I think Main Street is the proof of what I'm talking about," York said.
It's an assertion city officials bristle at, pointing to successful ventures by North Adams newcomers such as Greylock Works, the Tourists hotel, and A-OK Berkshire Barbeque. And what York laments as pestering and obstruction, city officials term enforcement of basic rules.
"David would always make it seem like people were out to get him — whether it was the employees or the town," one former employee said. "I don't think that's the case, I just think they were kind of confused as to why people were paying to look at his junk."
York claims the Museum of Dog drew 54,000 visitors last year. Former employees call that number inflated — just one example where York's claims clash with local accounts of his time in thenNorthern Berkshires.
York arrived in Berkshire County in 2017 after time spent in Connecticut and Georgia, where he founded and owned Barking Hound Village, a chain of dog daycare, boarding and grooming facilities. On his website he says he created the business in 1998.
Before getting into dog-related commerce, York and family members owned the H.R.H. Dumplins restaurant chain, which they sold in the 1990s. He also worked in the fashion industry in New York City, according to his website. York says that while employed at Macy's, he shaped "private label" merchandise and helped to create the Aeropostale retail outlet.
Along the way, York amassed a collection of dog-related art and collectibles ranging from centuries-old collars to wooden sculptures of dogs.
After selling a home in Connecticut, York briefly owned a dwelling in Lenox last May before selling it the next month and moving to North Adams, buying a home on Mill Street.
York told the Eagle last year he spotted an opportunity to house his extensive collection of canine-related art and keepsakes in September 2017, purchasing a building at 55-59 Union St. — formerly the Crystal Hard Hat Saloon — and turning that into the Museum of Dog. He says he wasn't out to make a killing financially, just have a place to park his art. "The business was not designed to make money, it was designed to just pay for the real estate. I had the collection," said York, who had no background in museum operations. "It wasn't that I did it to make money."
The Museum of Dog opened in April, immediately drawing the attention of local media outlets but also the Boston Globe and The New York Times.
But standing up a new cultural attraction came with challenges.
While clearing out the former Crystal Hard Hat Saloon, York's work crew began to repair two "semi-intact" restrooms in the rear of the building, but were forced to stop work by city inspectors who said he did not obtain a permit.
York was also held back from using the roughly 1,500-square-foot building in back of the museum because it would have required additional parking under city code — beyond the spaces which he had on-site and rented from a property owner across Union Street.
York said he struck a deal with GEM Environmental to use its spaces at the Union Street Station parking lot across Canal Street, but learned from officials that he had to rent from the property's condo association, not an individual tenant. He was unable to strike a deal with the condo association.
"It was very frustrating, especially when I thought it had it all settled across the street," York said.
Last summer, York set his eyes on a second venture, a restaurant on Marshall Street. He had hoped to buy the assets of the former Brewhaha Cafe, which in June moved to the city's West End. But York balked when he learned he needed Planning Board approval.
York saw that as burdensome, because his restaurant would have been a continuation of an existing use. "If I could have bought the business from [owner] Barry [Garton] and it never closed, that would have been a whole different story," York said.
But city rules call for such approvals. Bernard acknowledged that the regulation is worth reconsidering. "It's probably time to look at needing to go to the Planning Board for a change of ownership without a change of use," Bernard said.
According to city ordinances, a "change of use" includes "a change in the occupancy/tenancy of a commercial, business, or industrial property or structure."
York could have cleared that requirement by seeking the board's OK, as all businesses are required to do. The Planning Board meets monthly.
"I've never heard of that, it's absolutely crazy," York said. "It hurt [Garton] as much as anybody, because he could have had the revenue from the sale."
After Brewhaha's departure, York eventually leased the space from landlord CT Management Group and opened Bowlin' on the River in July, a build-your-own-meal restaurant that York based on eateries in Boston and New York City.
But York jumped the gun. Building Inspector William Meranti returned to the city from a vacation to find that Bowlin' on the River was open, even though it did not have a certificate of occupancy, nor had it been inspected by the health department.
Meranti arranged for an inspection and found several issues, including plumbing sticking out of the ground, holes in the floor for an extension cord connected to a cooler and exposed electrical wires.
York's former employees say the space was never fully equipped to operate as a legitimate restaurant. "That was the shell of Brewhaha with some tables in it. There wasn't even a real stove," the former employee said.
The restaurant was forced to close for less than a week until the issues were addressed and the department could issue a temporary certificate of occupancy, Meranti said.
York said he had trouble finding an electrician to do the required work. He suggests people in the city had it in for him. "It was almost like a bit of a boycott," York said.
York only obtained a temporary certificate of occupancy at Bowlin' on the River. Meranti said it was impossible to track him down to pay the $25 fee for the temporary, 30-day certificate of occupancy the restaurant was granted from month-to-month.
Meranti said the city held York to the standards every business must meet. He notes that the restaurant was allowed to remain open despite not having the issues permanently addressed.
One former employee said he had left a previous job to work for York at the new restaurant, only to be laid off after about two weeks. He was told that, among other reasons, the place closed because it drew fewer customers than expected. "It was a bunch of excuses," the employee said.
None of the employees interviewed by The Eagle filled out tax forms and were paid in cash. The restaurant failed to take off. "If you look at the population, nobody's buying quinoa here," one former employee said, referring to a trendy seed on the menu that is cooked and served like a grain.
Later in the year, York's employees were startled when a man came looking for York to serve him in a civil lawsuit.York acknowledged he was served with paperwork related a lawsuit filed against him by two former employees at Barking Hound Village in Georgia.
York described lawsuits as "the normal course of action in a business that size." Two former employees accused Barking Hound Village of racial discrimination, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern District of Georgia in April.
The complaint alleges that the two former employees — one of whom is black and the other Latino — were accused of drinking alcohol during work hours, which they denied. Both were fired. The complaint states that a third person — who is white — was seen and photographed drinking alcohol during work hours, but was not terminated. The case has since been settled.
"The case has been resolved, there were no allegations against Mr. York personally," said Regan Keebaugh, the Decatur, Ga., attorney who filed the lawsuit. "We're not accusing [York] of making a race-based or retaliatory decision."
Keebaugh also addressed rumors that United States marshals were in search of York, saying it was "almost certainly" a private process server based in Adams that his firm had hired to present York with court paperwork, as legally required.
Some of York's efforts in North Adams never got off the ground.
Last summer, York leased the former Sleepy's mattress store on Main Street from owner First Hartford Realty to stage a temporary exhibit in the same vein as the dog museum.
But he backed out when he learned he would have to go before the North Adams Redevelopment Authority — a public agency with oversight over a large section of the city's downtown.
York claims the museum had 8,000 reservations for that show, a number that cannot be verified. He was unable to obtain insurance without city approval for use of the space.
"'I went to the city hall thinking it would just be a normal permitting process, but they said no, you have to go to the redevelopment authority. That meeting at that point was like three months out," York said.
That time frame is exaggerated, according to city officials, who say the Redevelopment Authority can meet as needed.
York dropped his plan.
"I couldn't get the insurance so the whole thing had to be turned around and undone," he said. "That was obviously a massive red flag at that point."
But city officials said it wasn't long before York gave up on the plan. Bernard said there were ways the city could have worked with York to make the project happen, but that he canceled his lease with First Hartford.
"The first sign of a procedural hurdle and he took another approach that probably was harder," Bernard said.
Instead, local organizations collaborated to open "One Country, One Game: A Celebration of Baseball," inside the space for the summer, while York reworked his exhibit to fit inside the Museum of Dog.
"Their attendance was horrendous," York said. "When people come up with something solid, to have these cumbersome hurdles to have to jump is not a good thing to do."
John DeRosa, a local attorney and president of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, defended the baseball exhibit and said it drew between 2,000 and 2,500 visitors last summer.
"From my perspective, the baseball museum was a great success. It was well-attended, and people left notes of praise and enjoyment," DeRosa said.
York's battles in North Adams weren't his first run-ins with local governments. Barking Hound Village for a time provided animal control services on a contract to Fulton County communities in Georgia, including the city of Atlanta. The company's contract ended in 2013, but not before county auditors looked into allegations that York had spent money improperly on out-of-town hotels and restaurants, according to a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Animal rights activists also accused Barking Hound Village of not properly caring for animals. Reports by Randy Travis of Fox5, an Atlanta TV station, probed management of the shelter, where a manager was questioned about her handling of pitbull terriers.
York was seemingly indifferent to the money he would lose by quickly leaving North Adams. He estimated that he had invested $400,000 in the Museum of Dog building on Union Street, which he purchased for $220,000 in September 2017.
There are no building permits on file with the city to verify his stated investment in the property.
When it came time to sell, York listed the property for $299,000. He personally reached out to Very Good Property Development, which eventually bought it for $99,000.
As a contingency of the sale, Very Good was obligated to close on the deal within three weeks, according to one of the company's managing partners, Brian Miksic.
Very Good also made a verbal agreement with York that it would lease the property back to him for up to three months after the sale, but the building was vacated in a matter of days.
On the door of the museum, Very Good found a service termination notice from National Grid. York had an unpaid electricity bill of $977.74.
York's roughly $121,000 loss on the North Adams property came just months after he appears to have lost $39,000 on the home he bought and sold in Lenox.
York said the impetus behind his quick sale in North Adams was to avoid paying approximately $22,000 for art storage — the collection inside, he said, was worth millions of dollars — and to winterize the building, among other costs. York's stated value of the collection cannot be independently verified.
York also took a hit on the sale of the equipment at Bowlin' on the River, but isn't concerned — even though "I never like to lose money," he said.
"It was a year when I could use some extra write-offs from the business sale," York said.
Even the sale of Bowlin' on the River — which was open a matter of months — did not go smoothly, with two downtown business owners believing they were lined up to take over the space. Ultimately, Grazie Restaurant owner Matt Tatro won out with a plan to relocate his Tres Ninos taco truck into the brick-and-mortar location.
In September, York sold his North Street home — which he had purchased for $85,000 in December 2017 after selling the Mill Street residence — for $100,000.
When York announced he would close the North Adams museum, he told The Eagle he was close to signing a deal — it was "99 percent done" — on a new museum location in Pittsfield.
By November, with his "mobile museum" touring the country for the winter, he was not so sure. "I don't know, with all the excitement and buzz," York said.
The museum's Instagram has not been updated since November and York could not be reached for an update on the status of the tour. The cell phone number York used for museum business has been disconnected.
But if he never returns, it's not all bad memories for York, who said he met wonderful people in the Berkshires.
He says one highlight was a collaboration with McCann Tech students, who created several metal dog sculptures that York says will be displayed abroad and in the United States. He provided each of the five graduating metal fabrication students with a $2,000 scholarship, a gift confirmed by McCann officials.
"I could have done it, but just I felt I did everything to try to be a part of the community," York said. "I donated to the schools and everything ... there was just this resistance when I came to city hall."
York announced his intentions to close the Museum of Dog shortly before a North Adams Chamber of Commerce was schedule to take place there, catered by Bowlin' on the River, in September. The chamber decided to carry on with the event, described as a celebration of "a fantastic year for North Adams."
Chamber President Glenn Maloney said York — whom he described as a friend — was frequently offered help in navigating North Adams government and commerce. "He didn't leave because he was chased away, he left because he wanted to leave."
To promote the museum, York purchased white stretch limousines and painted silhouettes of dachshunds on their sides. He took one on the road when he left North Adams. But the other remains — unregistered and with a flat tire — in a small parking lot across Union Street from the former museum.
The city is working out the logistics of having the limousine towed.
Adam Shanks can be reached at email@example.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.
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.