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North Adams Transforming

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The Berkshires are known as a tourist destination, but until recently North Adams hasn’t fully tapped into the industry.

Like other areas in the Berkshires and across the country, the loss of manufacturing jobs brought hard times on the city of North Adams. From 1990 to 2000, the city lost almost 13 percent of its population and that decline has continued into the 2000s—though it’s drastically leveled off. But the city of 13,000 is now reinventing itself as an arts and cultural destination. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—MASS MoCA—is credited with starting the transition in 1999 when it moved into a retrofitted building which dates back to the 1860s that used to house Arnold Print Works and Sprague Electric. Veronica Bosley is the city’s director of tourism.

“Once the community saw what could be done in all these old places and how the smallest city in Massachusetts could host the largest museum for contemporary art, they kind of got behind the idea that ‘Hey, you know we don’t necessarily need more manufacturing jobs. We need more jobs,” said Bosley.

MASS MoCA has delved into offering concert series like the Fresh Grass Festival and theSolid Sound Festival, which was started by the alternative rock band, Wilco, in 2010. Nearby Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has also helped to sponsor DownStreet Art for the past six years. It offers a lineup of galleries, dance parties and musical performances five months out of the year. Bosley says North Adams is attracting a younger, more active crowd than those seeking out the traditional Berkshire hotspots like Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and the Norman Rockwell Museum.

“The cars with out-of-state plates here, they are parked, they’re going to a gallery, they’re going to MASS MoCA and they have kayaks strapped to the top of their car,” said Bosley.

But, Mayor Richard Alcombright, who’s starting his third term, says work remains for his administration.

“The city really hasn’t branded itself well,” Alcombright said. “We haven’t gone out to the world and said ‘These are the great reasons to come to North Adams, live in North Adams, shop in North Adams or to be in North Adams.”

One thing that may be holding the city back from matching the draw of the other destinations is the area’s lack of lodging. Bosley says the city relies on a 96-room Holiday Inn and a smattering of smaller motels and inns. She says the city’s hotel and meal taxes have increased over the past four years, but finding a room within an hour radius can be difficult during the major festivals. 

“We rent a giant campground through the city at one of our athletic fields for a festival just so we can accommodate 400 more people,” Bosley explained. “They list things on Airbnb to see if people want to rent out a room.”

Bosley says partnering with the region’s existing attractions and getting the word out will help the small city expand upon its newcomer status within the tourism industry.

“So anything that we can do to kind of latch onto that bigger Berkshires brand or Massachusetts brand even,” she said. “Just to really focus on the message of North Adams as a fresh, young Berkshire experience.”

Alcombright says he sees the growth happening.

“We’re working now to revitalize [Western Gateway] Heritage State Park into the Greylock Marketplace, bring in scenic rail between here and Adams, more connectivity with the bike path both coming in from Adams and Williamstown,” Alcombright pointed out. “So we are really plugged into these things. A lot of these things they are not just pipe dreams anymore. These are things that are not only in discussion, but have been funded or the design has been funded.”

Click here to learn more about the attractions in and around North Adams.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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