Mayor Richard Alcombright says North Adams used to be a little mill town that people had to drive through to get to Stockbridge, Williamstown, or popular spots in Southern Vermont.
“But over the last decade, we’ve become a place to stop and are really finding our way to becoming a destination,” he told BusinessWest, adding that there are many projects in various stages of completion that will only enhance the city’s growing popularity.
The $65 million, third-phase expansion of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), which will double its footprint, adding 130,000 square feet of gallery space and enhancing the outdoor courtyard space, is expected to be finished next year. The work is taking place on the south end of the campus of the former Sprague Electric factory, whose 16 acres of grounds and 26 buildings with an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passages was transformed into the museum in 1999. When the renovations are complete, the North Adams museum will be the largest of its kind in the country.
Mass MoCA has had a regional economic impact of $24 million annually, and drew more than 160,000 visitors last year alone. The numbers are expected to increase, especially since the $100 million renovation and expansion of the Francine and Sterling Clark Art Institute two years ago in nearby Williamstown continue to grow and have helped strengthen North Adams’s position as a destination for arts and culture.
Alcombright calls the two institutions “cultural bookends,” and said the expansions have boosted confidence in the city and inspired private investments on a scale not seen in decades.
Indeed, Salvatore Perry and Karla Rothstein of Latent Productions in New York City had no plans to invest in North Adams until they drove through the town two years ago to pick up their daughter from a New Hampshire camp.
They had never been to the Berkshires and planned to visit the Clark, as it’s called, but when they spotted the Cariddi Mill (originally known as the Greylock Mill) that stretches 700 feet along Route 2 in North Adams on 7.8 acres, their plans underwent an abrupt change.
The couple has focused on developing properties with unrealized potential in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but seeing the former cotton mill that was for sale led them to scrap plans to see a concert at Mass MoCA that night.
Instead, they did some research, met with the owner and broker the next day, and purchased the 240,000-square-foot property for $750,000. “The building is a magnificent structure, and as architects, the potential was immediately apparent to us,” Perry said.
The next year was spent conducting research to determine the best potential use for the property and list any challenges that would be involved in rehabbing the site.
The couple formed a new limited-liability company called Greylock Works, which reclaimed the property, and work began last October in an area known as the Weave Shed. The goal was to transform it into a 32,000-square-foot event space, and although it was not finished, it was introduced to the public via a New Year’s Eve Party that attracted 600 guests.
Site foreman Joe Boucher said the space will be complete in July, and pointed out the newly installed wall-to-wall windows facing the street and the unusual sawtooth construction which floods the space with light.
“It will hold 1,000 people and is a resource that doesn’t exist in the region,” Perry noted.
The next phase of the project will involve the renovation of an adjacent, 32,000-square-foot area that will be turned into a retail food hub or artisanal food incubator, with a butcher shop, bakery, cheesemakers, and a restaurant situated off of a main interior corridor. Each business will have a small area for retail operations and also have room to conduct wholesale operations to help sustain a flow of year-round revenue.
“The focus is to bring activity, great jobs, events, and fantastic food production to this portion of the site,” Perry said, adding that renovating the event space and food incubator will cost between $5 million and $6 million.
When that portion of the mill is finished, plans will be implemented to build a hotel, amenities for it, residential condos, and a park on the rest of the property.
In addition to cultural offerings, North Adams has an endless panorama of hiking trails, and the Hoosic River, which runs directly through the city’s downtown, is one of few area waterways that supports wild brown trout.
Alcombright said other draws include the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and the fact that North Adams and Williamstown, which is home to the Clark and Williams College, are linked by Route 2 has led the communities to piggyback on projects whenever they can.
Another project based on private investment between the two has begun at the site of the former Redwood Motel on 915 State Road in North Adams. It was built in the ’60s and was in a state of disrepair until it was purchased last April for $350,000 by a group that includes Boston developers, a Brooklyn publisher, and a musician from the band Wilco.
Project Manager Eric Kerns said the group formed an LLC called Beyond Place for the project, and initially planned a creative renovation of the 18-room motel. But the vision has grown, and the parties have assembled nearly 50 acres of property, including the 65,000-square-foot Blackinton Mill site north of the motel and 45 acres of former industrial land contiguous to it. The plan is to connect the properties and build a resort that will appeal to Millennials and young families in Brooklyn, Boston, and other communities.
“They’re primed to discover the Berkshires as a tourist destination,” Kerns said of the younger demographic. “Although the area has a lot for them, including music, art, and outdoor recreation, most hospitality properties are still targeting a much older demographic.
“We want to create a home for the next generation of Berkshire visitors,” she went on, “and plan to take a familiar site and reorient it back from the road toward the river and prioritize what new generations are looking for.”
A house that sits on the motel property will be renovated and turned into a central lodge, and an old farmhouse to the east on the newly purchased grounds will also be reimagined.
“This project is moving forward at an accelerated rate, and the goal is to have all 47 rooms completed a year from now when Mass MoCA completes its third phase of renovation; we feel that an economic renaissance is happening between North Adams and Williamstown, and we are at the center of it,” he continued, adding that a profound confluence of the Appalachian Trail, the Mohawk Trail, and the Hoosic River can be found on the property.
Thomas Krens, who once directed the Guggenheim Museum in New York and its overseas satellites, and was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Mass MoCA, has proposed another project for North Adams: a $20 million model-railroading and architecture museum in Western Gateway Heritage State Park that has a footpath directly across from Mass MoCA’s south gate.
“The idea has been very, very well received by the state, the community, and the private sector,” Alcombright said, adding that the museum — which would be twice as large as the Miniatur Wunderland, a model-railway attraction in Hamburg, Germany that is presently the largest of its kind in the world — is expected to bring another 200,000 to 300,000 visitors to North Adams each year.
The Hoosic River Revival is another endeavor that promises to enhance North Adams and bring new life downtown by a radical revision of the existing flood-control system. A plan has been designed that will protect the city while making the waterway a focal point and promoting recreation along it that will enhance the city’s cultural and economic vitality.
The existing flood-protection system was built in the ’50s. It is bordered by a chain-link fence, runs through two and a half miles of the downtown area, and contains 45-foot-wide, three-sided concrete panels that are 10 to 15 feet high, which make it impossible for fish to live in that section of the river.
The project was spearheaded by resident Judy Grinnell in 2008, and since that time a dedicated coalition, which formed a nonprofit three years ago, has raised a total of $800,000 (including $575,000 from the state) for the revival.
“The river is an integral part of our downtown,” Grinnell noted, explaining that two branches bisect and merge at the end of the last building on the Mass MoCA complex.
The importance of the project was driven home when Hurricane Irene hit in 2011 and the river rose within two feet of the floodwalls.
“It was opportunistic that we started this project when we did because the system is aging. It is not going to flood any time soon, but three of the 20-foot panels have fallen in over the past 15 years, and six are leaning,” Grinnell noted, adding that officials are working with the Army Corps of Engineers, and a plan has been created that will include community gardens, a bike path, and other amenities designed to bring people downtown.
Last year the state Legislature appropriated $8.75 million for the project as part of an environmental and energy bond bill, and the nonprofit received $500,000 to design a half-mile section as a pilot project, which is in the approval process.
“The Hoosic River revival is an ecological project, but it’s also an economic-development project,” Grinnell said, citing other cities such as Providence, R.I., and San Antonio, Texas, where access to the riverfront has helped spur revitalization and create vibrant downtowns.
When Alcombright took office in 2010, North Adams had a $2.3 million budget deficit with $100,000 in reserve. Today, the city is in a much different position, and for the last two years has had a balanced budget with $1.6 million in reserve.
The mayor said taxpayers bore the brunt of the problem, but thanks to new projects underway, the city’s future is on a fast track to success.
A $30 million renovation of the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School that transformed it into Colgrove Park Elementary School was completed last winter, and the building opened in January. Nearly 80% of the cost is being reimbursed by the state, and the new school will add to the city’s appeal.
“We managed to sustain ourselves through the bad times, have built our way back up, and are starting to see growth; we’re on the upside of the hill and are starting to feel some excitement,” the mayor noted as he spoke about Mass MoCA and the private investments taking place.
Perry agreed. “North Adams is at a turning point,” he said. “When we decided to invest here, the regional hospital was shutting its doors, and now, almost two years later, it’s phenomenal to see the optimism and investments private developers are planning alongside major institutional achievements by places such as Mass MoCA and Williams College.”
North Adams at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,354 (2014)
Area: 20.6 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $17.39
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.93
Median Household Income: $41,531 (2013)
Family Household Income: $52,202 (2013)
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; Northern Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
* Latest information available