Without Hospital, What's Next For North Adams?

Mar 27, 2014

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North Adams Regional Hospital is scheduled to close Friday. What it would mean for the economy and psyche of a community that is still coming back from decline in manufacturing?

Citing a worsening financial situation, Northern Berkshire Healthcare will file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, meaning it will cease operations and relinquish control of its facilities. Effective Friday, North Adams’ largest employer will lay off approximately 530 full- and part-time employees. The VNA and Hospice of Northern Berkshire and three medical practices owned by NBH also will cease operations. Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard did a quick analysis of the economic impact of the closings based on a model of the local economy. He says the region will see a yearly reduction of nearly $100 million in economic output as a result of the closings.

“If they’re not bringing home a paycheck they’re not going out and shopping at local stores, they’re not buying furniture, they’re not deciding to move ahead with that addition onto their house that they were thinking about,” said Sheppard.

Democratic State Senator Ben Downing of Pittsfield says he is doing everything in his power to keep a healthcare facility in North Adams, noting its health and economic importance.

“The impact of a hospital closing anywhere is significant,” Downing said. “The impact of a hospital closing in North Adams and in the Northern Berkshires is even larger. It is a community that has gone through an economic transition and certainly the health and wellbeing of the hospital is a big part of that.”

In 1985, Sprague Electric left North Adams, leaving more than 575 people without jobs. From 1990 to 2000, the city lost almost 13 percent of its population, and that decline has continued into the 2000s — though it has drastically leveled off. North Adams is now a city of 13,000. Sheppard estimates the direct layoffs of more than 500 healthcare workers will result in an additional 230 jobs lost in the community.

“Take something as mundane as mops and cleaning supplies,” Sheppard said. “A hospital has to be kept clean. A certain amount of the mops and cleaning supplies that they need would be purchased from local merchants. And because they’re there purchasing those things, local merchants then add an employee or maybe a part-time job.”

Mayor Richard Alcombright, always open about how broke city government is — projected to end this fiscal year with less than $100,000 in reserve — says the loss of NBH worker payroll will have a large negative impact.

“The trickle-down effect is going to be enormous here,” Alcombright said. “We’re going to continue to work to see if we can remedy this and if we can’t what can survive and what can we bring back will have to be the next question.”

Mary Grant is the president of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. The college enrolls nearly 2,500 students and has more than 400 full- and part-time employees. North Adams Public Schools employs about 400 people as well. Grant says the loss of the hospital could have an impact on attracting future students and faculty, though she isn’t sure what that will be just yet.

“A faculty or staff member who maybe is having a child so now she’s trying to think about where will I deliver that child?” Grant said. “So those things do come into quality of life and healthcare decisions which are really important, critically important.”

Sheppard’s estimates take into account the immediate effects of losing healthcare services, but not the long-term impact on the community’s ability to attract businesses or even keep the current ones.

“It’s a critical component of what makes a community a desirable place to live and a place where people can think about moving to, raising families and thriving,” said Sheppard.

Grant says the community agrees there has to be access to healthcare in and around North Adams, saying the very livelihood of the area depends on it.

“These kinds of changes, which are dramatic, the loss of jobs, the worry about the future, can set a community and an organization back on its heels,” Grant said. “I think what we have to do now, which is really hard when something like this is in the midst of playing out and it affects real lives, is to think about what do we do? How do we move forward? How do we regroup? How do we come together as a community? What are the options before us? Because there always have to be options before us. I think what it is does is it forces us to dig even deeper.”