The Future of North Adams?

A Letter to Mayor Dick Alcombright

By: - Feb 17, 2013

Mayor Mayor Mayor Mayor Mayor Mayor

Box 786 North Adams, MA 01247-0786 800.294 2811
14 February 2013

Mayor Richard Alcombright
City of North Adams
City Hall
North Adams, MA 01247
re: The Future of North Adams?

Dear Mayor Alcombright:

If you will recollect, you together with the Partnership announced with great fanfare in 2011 five projects aimed at propelling North Adams forward. This “tremendous beginning” was not well thought out and nothing much resulted:

a) Redevelopment of the River Street and Ashland Street Neighborhoods. (Nothing.)
b) Growing Educational Influence along Church Street, East Main and Union Streets. (The MCLA Center for Science and Innovation is a very important project, but has little to do with the Partnership.) Hopefully, bringing the Conte Middle School back to life will take place – though for some reasons there is opposition?
c) Creation of a Conference Building on the South Side of Main Street. (Nothing.)
d) Creation of a Small Wind Farm on the Eastern Edge. (Two small wind turbines have been installed on the MoCA Campus and the largest land based wind farm in the state was planned and installed by others on the Hoosac Ridge.)
e) Development of the Hoosic River Southward. (Nothing.)

It is clear that the Partnership has the best future of North Adams at its heart and is very well connected. The problems in my opinion are that the Partnership’s activities are not transparent and the Partnership represents the views of the old guard gate keepers. Projects should be coming from a broader representation of the community including younger professionals, local businesses, artists, etc. together with the Partnership. North Adams took a bold action with MASS MoCA and succeeded. North Adams needs to take another broad and risky initiative. If the Partnership wants to advance the Western Gateway Project, the Mohawk Theater and the rebirth of the Dowlin Building – those are meaningful projects, but they have very little to do with exploring future visions for North Adams. Like a good maintenance plan, those are the projects that should have started in 2011. Further, 25 Marshall Street should have been purchased at the recent auction by the Partnership for $251,000. It is a strategic location for a revitalized Main Street and the Revival of the Hoosic River. The Partnership didn’t see this. It is now for sale for $350,000. - still a good value.

Meanwhile, North Adams is suffering from serious defects that no one in power seems to want to focus on. Some of these are:
1- Serious Health Problems in the Community and a severe shortage of Primary Care Doctors in North Adams. This problem has gotten worse over the past three years. New residents now must travel more than an hour away to find a Primary Care Doctor. Does anyone in your administration know what the Hospital’s physician alignment strategy is?
2- Underperforming High Schools with the very real possibility of eliminating Music and Art Instruction in our Creative Economy City!
3- No creative quality job creation strategies.
4- Our local Transcript has recently announced that it has relocated its emotional and financial core from North Adams to Williamstown. That says it all!
5- Many hundreds of Homes are falling apart.

I have studied the Northern Berkshires over these past four years and have come to the conclusion that very real economic gains can be accomplished by embracing such projects that I have announced to you and others as:
A) China Arts Museum. North Adams has a unique China connection. The U.S. Government’s EB-5 Program could finance this. (60,000 Visitors).
B) New Hospital/Healthcare Model: Accountable Care, Medical Tourism, etc. (500 Jobs).
C) Wellness Focused City with Conference Center and Hotel with Reconfigured Hoosic River. North Adams – The City That Wellness Saved. (1,000 Jobs). Williams College believes that a new hotel would make sense in their neighborhood. I believe that a new luxury hotel would make sense behind BigY as a part of my CITY CENTRE PROJECT.
D) Fort Massachusetts Development (Restored No. 4 Fort in New Hampshire and Old Fort Western in Maine bring in Thousands of Tourists.) Why wouldn’t North Adams want to do this? (20,000 Visitors).
E) North Adams – The Hiking and Cycling Capital of the Northeast. It was good to see that the City is finally acknowledging the Appalachian Trail as a tourism generator. I’m suggesting that it can be a job generator as well. On 15 January I was invited by the Williamstown Rotary to talk about my International Appalachian Trail (PROJECT PANGAEA) Project and how it might affect the Williamstown Businesses. They came to me. Haven’t heard from the North Adams business community yet. (200 Jobs).
F) World War II Museum. The North Adams Post Office is one of the most attractive buildings in North Adams. It is also only 25% utilized (no wonder the U.S.P.S. is in financial troubles). Relocate the Post Office into a portion of the vacant Staples space. Less expensive and better parking for customers like is taking place in other cities. Neighboring Shops will benefit. (80,000 Visitors).
G) Foreign Immigrants Project. Like some other cities in the Northeast, openly invite 100 Immigrant Families. (400 New Residents).

THE NORTH ADAMS CITY CENTRE PROJECT over Route 2 could tie these diverse projects together and be paid for by MBTA’s transportation infrastructure investment funds. I don’t see any follow up with me or the pursuit of other meaningful economic development projects with
others. I’m interested in visions that have the potential of creating 3,000 new quality jobs over the next 10 years. The Walmart Supercenter will definitely be a driver of economic activity as other businesses will want to ride their Route 8 commercial exposure. Employment will be improved, but these are typically minimum wage jobs – and nothing new here to attract young professionals. Thank goodness for Crane which might add 100 jobs here, but they have selected Pittsfield for their high-tech expansions. This does nothing for our Main Street which will still be full of vacant stores and offices! Even David Carver has decided his next projects make more sense in the rough and tumble of Pittsfield (Notre Dame School Apartments) rather than tackle economic development on his Main Street properties here. Also, incoming artists are now favoring Pittsfield over North Adams because of perceived quality of life issues. Maybe that is why Mr. Carver is preferring to invest there at this time as well? Greenberg’s has shut because there is no new construction going on in North Adams. Most likely an Applebee’s will replace Greenberg’s and they will take the profits to their headquarters in Kansas City and Walmart will take theirs to Arkansas. Our great houses are being broken up into low rent apartments. Maybe the City can use some of the Partnership’s payments to hire 100 unemployed local contractors to paint the exterior of a few hundred of these homes as a preservation action and positive signal to the Community and its Visitors.

With some serious innovative thinking, the North Adams Hospital could be a shining example of the New Health Care World with 1,000 new jobs. Is anyone from your administration critically evaluating what is taking place on Hospital Avenue to the benefit of the Northern Berkshires? If nothing is done, I project that 200+ hospital jobs will be lost here due to forced efficiencies. A downtown Specialty Medical Arts Center, Wellness Skills Development, a Wellness App Development Center, a 3D Medical Device Printing Center and a School of Dentistry could begin to turn things around. Maybe require all flat roofed Route 8 buildings to allow for Greenhouses to grow year round organic vegetables for schools, hospital, senior citizens, etc. as a part of the Wellness Program. A Food Hub for the Northern Berkshires could start very quickly.

There are two cities in the region that in my opinion should be visited by you and your administration: Hudson, NY (1 ½ hour drive) and Glens Falls, NY (2 ½ hour drive). Both of these cities fell on very hard times, had visions and are now much healthier, happier and on their ways to something special. Hudson has a population of about 8,000 (once a manufacturing center, now an arts center) and Glens Falls has a population of about 14,000 (once a paper mill center, now a medical device center). My suggestion is that you contact the mayors of these cities and request a day with them. If Gov. Patrick can justify junkets to Israel and China – you should be able to check out these places with Rep. Gail Cariddi and others. If funds are needed to help make this happen, I am certain that local foundations and banks will support this effort. Should you decide to make these trips, you can visit Regeneron in East Greenbush, Albany Nanotech in Albany and GlobalFoundries in Malta which are about 90 minutes away and are projected to hire thousands of skilled individuals. If North Adams is not going to create meaningful jobs here, at least train residents and provide jitneys to transport locals to these locations. According to Allan W. Blair, the CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, it doesn’t matter how many vacant buildings you have, new businesses will only relocate if there is a skilled workforce in place. There isn’t. For years, the City has allowed the skilled young people to migrate to more supportive communities.

Several small business owners in North Adams that I have been meeting with over this period can see themselves expanding physically and adding employees if the City would help them out. So besides the New Vision, there are the existing businesses that need your attention. Where are our recently deposited tax dollars going, if not to strengthen North Adams for a much better future?

A city the size of North Adams cannot be all things to everyone. Its population of seniors and the needy is expanding. Why not make North Adams then the Best Senior Citizen City in the Northeast and attract wealthy academic and cultural retirees, etc.? But, be prepared for even more medical support costs. Walmart will be pleased, as seniors don’t purchase that much in the downtown shops. On the other hand, North Adams as a green future city is potentially very attractive to young professionals, but this requires concentrated attention to a better vision, better schools, better health systems, a better downtown, etc. If these can be targeted and accomplished, young professionals from around the country will find their way here with funds to buy things, participate in the local government, and restore hundreds of historic homes, etc. The market wants Sustainable Urbanism and we have many of the basics here.

It is encouraging that there are presentations and conversations taking place at Berkshire Planning, MCLA, Williams and elsewhere regarding green planning concepts, etc. for the Northern Berkshires. One of the problems is that it is rare to find someone from your administration participating at these meetings!

At this moment, North Adams has no form or direction. It is like jello and will eventually melt into a puddle. MCLA appears to be doing very well. MASS MoCA seems to be doing well. The Hospital appears to be doing better. The City of North Adams appears to be not doing so well. If these healthier institutions are going to thrive here, might these tax-exempt institutions pay to the City some yearly payments in lieu of taxes? Holyoke, for example, has payment agreements with about 6 tax-exempt organizations and is seeking $1.7 million a year ($600,000 in year 1) from the recently opened state owned High Performance Computing Center. Maybe, reunite North Adams with Adams as the mill owners’ rationale of the 1870s separation no longer applies. With all due respect, bold risky actions are now required. The Hoosac Tunnel took 50 years and MASS MoCA took more than 10 years. Delaying the future direction for North Adams is in no one’s best interests. Others will say this differently, but many of us are frustrated and concerned.

In closing, why is it that North Adams prefers to be in this crippled state? My own analysis reveals the continued mindset of a one company Arnold Print Works/Sprague Electric city. Some other mill towns have this same affliction. Some will make it and others won’t. North Adams fortunately is surrounded by a huge community of very smart and creative neighbors ready to help out.

Respectfully submitted,
Ralph Brill, President