Museum transforms North Adams's image
By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent, 10/12/2002
But after 13 years of planning and delays, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) opened in 1999 as a mixed-used cultural and commercial center, reusing 27 abandoned factory buildings downtown.
Until Mass MoCA opened, officials worried about how they would transform the city's economy, which had once depended on manufacturing. Two major employers, Sprague Electric and General Electric, closed in the mid-1980s, taking away 3,600 manufacturing jobs.
At about the same time, 2,000 more jobs were lost as the last remnants of the textile industry disappeared. And by 1992, the downtown Sheraton Hotel had been sold at auction, for $225,000.
"We hit rock bottom," said John A. Barrett III, longtime mayor of North Adams. "Even Yankee magazine called us a sorry gateway to anywhere. We had to reinvent ourselves because manufacturing was a thing of the past."
Then Governor Michael Dukakis recognized that Western Massachusetts had been left out of the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle." He introduced legislation to authorize $35 million to build the world's largest contemporary art museum in the distressed city. But the economic boom of the mid-1980s gave way to double-digit inflation, high unemployment, and budget cuts, so the plans were put on hold.
When Governor William Weld took office in 1991, he called for a private-sector commitment to the project and reduced the state's contribution.
In 1995, at the urging of Jane Swift, then a state senator who was raised in North Adams and represented the region on Beacon Hill, the Weld-Cellucci administration approved $18.6 million in matching funds to rehabilitate a 13-acre complex linked by courtyards, bridges, and elevated walkways.
Barrett does not know how much revenue Mass MoCA has brought into the town's coffers, but he said the museum has dramatically affected the region's economy. Since opening day, the center has attracted more than 365,000 people to its galleries, movies, and live performances.
"The ripple effect of Mass MoCA has been far-reaching," Barrett said. "It changed the city's image; businesses who didn't want anything to do with us are relocating here. I know it sounds crazy, but we've been discovered."
Census figures from 2000 show many residents have yet to benefit from the arts complex. Median family income in North Adams was $27,601, and 13.5 percent of families lived below the poverty line, up from 10.4 percent in 1990.
Another sector yet to experience growth is real estate. In 1988, when The Warren Group began tracking home sales, the median price for a single-family dwelling here was $81,500. For the first eight months of 2002, that number was $80,000. Most cities and towns in Massachusetts saw home values rise in the 1990s, including nearby Williamstown, Clarksburg, and Pittsfield.
For buyers, stagnant prices in North Adams offer lots of affordable choices. Of the 41 single-family homes listed this week on Realtor.Com, 21 are priced under $100,000, and a dozen are listed between $100,00 and $200,000.
Still, residents say the city's schools need to improve dramatically.
North Adams students in grades 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 10 scored near the bottom of the state's 212 school districts in the most recent MCAS scores.
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/12/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company