As a long-time resident of North Adams, Mayor Thomas Bernard understands the city’s reputation as a tourist destination. It’s a good reputation to have, as it puts more cars on the streets and feet in local establishments.
But North Adams — the least-populated community in the Commonwealth classified as a city — is much more than that.
“I think the untold story about North Adams — and the Berkshires in general — is that we have a robust manufacturing sector here,” said Bernard, who began serving his first term as mayor at the start of this year. “We talk about the role of culture and tourism, but we have manufacturing, too.”
And the sector is a bustling one, he added, citing Tog Manufacturing Co., which makes precision-machined parts, and is looking to expand both its space and workforce over the next few years. The company is also a good example of the workforce-development partnerships being forged in the industry locally.
“They have a really good connection with McCann Technical School, while MCLA [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts], our great public university, has an engineering partnership with General Dynamics to meet their workforce needs. And then Crane Paper, which was bought recently by Mohawk, is talking expansion as well in the next couple years, adding a shift and adding workers,” he said. “Take those things together, and it’s a significant engine that often gets overlooked in conversations about the economy and economic development in the Berkshires, and North Adams in particular.”
That’s not to say the cultural sector isn’t important, anchored, of course, by MASS MoCA, which recently underwent a $65 million expansion, adding 130,000 square feet of gallery space and enhancing the outdoor courtyard space. The work took 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. The facility has a regional economic impact of more than $25 million annually.
Then there are newer projects like Greylock WORKS, an ongoing transformation of the former Greylock Mill along Route 2. Salvatore Perry and Karla Rothstein of Latent Productions in New York City saw potential in the site four years ago and purchased the 240,000-square-foot property for $750,000.
“The narrative has been that, when big companies left in that wave of industrial migration in the mid-’80s and beyond, manufacturing stopped. That’s just not the case.”
The first goal was to create a large event space, and further developments have included a commercial kitchen and a specialty food marketplace; a rum distiller is the first tenant. 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 Greylock WORKS development will eventually include a residential component as well.
Meanwhile, Thomas Krens, who was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Mass MoCA two decades ago, proposed another project for North Adams a few years ago: 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.
Once completed, that project is expected to bring another 200,000 to 300,000 visitors to North Adams each year.
Those projects — far from the only ones creating energy in North Adams — are an intriguing sample of what the city has to offer. But Bernard thinks there is far more potential, and hopes to see it come to fruition.
Down on Main Street
Bernard is cheered by recent high-profile developments, but knows overall progress in any city is not an overnight proposition.
“There are persistent challenges,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m looking out my window at Main Street, 20 years after MASS MoCA happened, and we still haven’t totally cracked the code on a booming, bustling downtown.”
He compared North Adams to Shelburne Falls, which has a “really lovely, compact, interesting downtown” that people flock to, for the Bridge of Flowers and other attractions. “But you have to know Shelburne is there … you have to be intentional to go there and find it.”
And if an out-of-the-way town like that can have a thriving downtown, he went on, why shouldn’t North Adams — with a museum in MASS MoCA that draws some 250,000 visitors each year, many of them from outside town — be able to create a more vibrant downtown of its own?
“After 20 years of good intentions, and investments by the museum, the city, and the chamber, we’re still trying to figure that one out,” he said, adding that one thing that could provide a spark is more market-rate housing and mixed-use development downtown to put more feet on the streets.
North Adams at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1878
Area: 20.6 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $18.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.85
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
*Latest information available
That would in turn create demand for more eclectic food options, specialized retail, and galleries — “the kinds of things that are equally attractive to locals who have lived here their whole lives, people who transplanted here because they love the idea of this small New England city, and tourists who are here for the day or the weekend.”
Speaking of tourists, that’s actually the name of North Adams’ newest hotel, a 48-room retreat inspired by the classic American roadside motor lodge, set on the banks of the Hoosic River.
Tourists was the brainchild of Ben Svenson, a Boston-based developer, and a team of partners. They stripped a crumbling roadside lodge down to the studs and turned it into something both retro and decked out in modern amenities.
A wooden boardwalk leads to the river, while a saltwater pool was added, and an event space was fashioned from a neighboring farmhouse. Wooded walking paths lead to a yoga pavilion, open fields, a sculpture installation, and an old textile mill. A deconsecrated church in the woods will become Loom, where Cortney Burns, a James Beard Award-winning chef, will begin creating dishes in 2019.
No matter what happens in the realms of tourism, dining, retail, or any number of other high-profile elements of an attractive city, Bernard understands North Adams has a strong foundation of other businesses that may not receive the same attention.
“The narrative has been that, when big companies left in that wave of industrial migration in the mid-’80s and beyond, manufacturing stopped. That’s just not the case,” he said. “I mentioned Tog — they’ve been at it for 20-30 years in the same location, employing 25-30 people. For them to be talking about facility expansion and workforce expansion that would effectively double their workforce in North Adams and the Berkshires, that’s significant. That’s a big win.”
To meet that workforce need, however, he recognizes the importance of partnerships between industry and education to provide training, retraining, and professional development to help people access career opportunities.
“To be honest and realistic, we’re still a small, post-industrial New England city, and we have our economic challenges,” he said. “While we’re paying attention to all the great development that’s happening — it’s what drives growth and progress in the future — we can’t lose sight of people who have been here all their lives and are struggling because of fixed incomes and low incomes, seniors worried about taxes, or people who don’t have the education and skills to compete for the jobs that are here.”
Bernard believes North Adams is in a good spot to meet those needs and keep growing.
“I take a lot of pride in being the mayor of the smallest city in the Commonwealth — in population, but not by stature,” he said. “We’re a world-class destination for the arts, for culture, for outdoor recreation, for tourism, and we’ve got great educational resources in the city.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]