North Adams Pursues Return to Normalcy
By Mark Morris
While North Adams tries to return to familiar norms, many are prepared to adjust if new pandemic concerns arise.
That’s the perspective of Mayor Thomas Bernard, anyway, who said his community has slowly and cautiously taken steps to bring back the positive routines of daily life.
“The moment that stands out for me is our first concert at Windsor Lake in early to mid-June,” Bernard said. “There were people who hadn’t seen neighbors and friends for more than a year. The sound of kids laughing and playing, great music, the spirit was unbelievable.”
More recently, he pointed to MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass Festival in September as an example of holding a popular event and exercising caution, as attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entering.
“Returning to these events is the fulfillment of the promise we made to each other when things were shutting down — that we would be back,” Bernard said.
Though no one can predict what the future holds, Nico Dery said North Adams businesses are prepared to make a quick pivot if necessary.
“Businesses now have COVID plans in place that were developed from an entire season of figuring out what worked and what didn’t,” said Dery, business development coordinator for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce.
The city was the site for a robust vaccination effort that began in January and ran through June, during which time volunteers at the Northern Berkshire regional vaccination center held 40 clinics and administered nearly 25,000 vaccines to residents.
Right now, the vaccination rate in North Adams is around 65%, but that percentage does not reflect a fair number of residents who received their vaccine in Vermont or New York, the mayor pointed out. With North Adams located in the northwest corner of the state, the borders to both adjacent states are easily accessible.
“However you figure it, I’m not going to be happy until the numbers get above 80%,” he added.
“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season. Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”
Members of the regional emergency-planning committee who ran the COVID-19 operations center were honored at the 65th annual Fall Foliage Parade on Oct. 3.
“Everyone who was involved in the public-health response and the vaccination efforts are the folks who will be celebrated and honored as a sign of how far we have come,” Bernard said the week before the event — and a year after the parade was cancelled due to the coronavirus.
“The theme of this year’s parade was “Games, Movies, Takeout” — “everything that kept many of us going during the darkest times of the pandemic,” the mayor added.
No Summertime Blues
Businesses in North Adams experienced what Dery called a “great summer,” with lots of visitors exploring the Berkshires.
“In the past, we had seen many people come here from New York City, but because of COVID, we’ve seen a big increase of people from the Boston metro area,” she noted, crediting the increased visitor traffic to people choosing to forgo a European or cross-country vacation and instead stay closer to home.
“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season,” she added. “Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”
North Adams has also seen a number of businesses open during the pandemic. Bernard pointed to the Clear Sky Cannabis dispensary, which opened in March, and the Bear and Bee Bookshop in June.
The Plant Connector opened in September 2020 before vaccines were available. Emilee Yawn, a co-owner of the shop, heard from naysayers who said North Adams was a tourist destination and, since there were no tourists during the pandemic, no one would come in.
However, “from the moment we opened, we’ve been bustling,” she said. “I had been growing plants in my one-bedroom apartment, and in no time, we had sold 120 plants. We had to quickly find a wholesaler and become a real business.”
Yawn and co-owner Bonnie Marks met at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where Yawn was office manager and Marks was a bookkeeper. When Yawn was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, the idea of a store to promote their mutual passion for plants became more real.
Recently celebrating the first anniversary of the Plant Connector, Yawn noted that, since the opening, more than 6,700 people have walked through the door, and they’ve been averaging around 800 people a month — not bad for a 400-square-foot space.
While they have a website and have recently sold plants to customers in New Jersey, nearly 90% of their sales are from local people in the Berkshires.
North Adams at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1878
Area: 20.6 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available
“We feel very supported by the community,” Yawn said. “North Adams is a special place; I’ve never felt connected to so many awesome people.”
As the weather starts getting cooler, business is picking up, and Yawn is looking forward to leaf peepers drawn to the Mohawk Trail and surrounding areas. “We’re excited for them to come peep around our shop,” she added.
Businesses in North Adams are also gearing up for the holiday season and what’s known as Plaid Friday. The North Adams Chamber promotes this annual effort with posters and through social media to businesses throughout the Northern Berkshires.
“We started this initiative to encourage people to spend money in their communities on the day after Thanksgiving instead of going to the big-box stores,” Dery said. “Many retailers will run Plaid Friday all that weekend.”
Similar to most communities, hiring in North Adams, particularly in restaurants, remains a challenge. So far, many restaurants are operating at reduced hours to retain staff and prevent burnout.
“This upcoming winter will be interesting because many people are thinking outside the box on how to best manage this,” Dery said.
The Next Phase
Bernard will also have an interesting winter after deciding not to run again for mayor. On the job since 2018, he called his time in office a “privilege of a lifetime, to serve North Adams, the community where I grew up.”
He looks forward to an historic election as voters will choose the first woman mayor in the city’s history. The two candidates who emerged from the runoff election, Jennifer Macksey and Lynette Bond, will face each other in the mayor’s race in November.
Bernard said he is still exploring the next move in his career. “I’m asked so often about my future plans, I feel like a senior in college,” he said with a laugh.
As she reflected on the success of the Plant Connector, Yawn admitted she thought the store would flop and she would have to sell plants on eBay and Etsy to survive. Shortly after opening, however, she saw they had something special there.
“I always say this about North Adams,” Yawn said. “This city chooses its people, and people don’t choose it. That’s why there’s a high concentration of awesome people here.”