North Adams, Massachusetts is preparing for an influx of visitors for this weekend’s Solid Sound festival at MASS MoCA.
When indie rock staple Wilco brings its biennial celebration of music, comedy, and the arts to the second-largest community in the Berkshires, nothing is taken for granted.
“On a city level, we make sure we have meetings a month or two out for the Solid Sound festival, just to discuss how with all the city departments their roles, how we can make the city more accessible to everybody, how the city can work with MASS MoCA to make sure everything is safe, and just make that sure we’re all on the same page when the festival comes to town," said Suzy Helme. "Because it’s almost doubling our population for a weekend. We need to kind of talk about that,” she laughed.
Helme is the director of tourism and events for the city of North Adams – population just under 14,000. She says planning for the unthinkable is at the top of the list for pre-festival prep – especially before this year’s event, which is entirely sold out with over 8,000 tickets sold. The show runs Friday through Sunday.
“If something – which hasn’t happened so far, knock on wood, won’t happen – but if something terrible happens, need an emergency plan where we’re going to move 10,000 people to to keep everybody safe,” she told WAMC.
“Well, it depends on the emergency," said Steven Meranti, Fire Chief of North Adams. He’s a part of the unified command system that the city deploys to handle the crowds for Solid Sound, along with the police department and emergency medical services.
“Some weather related emergencies, we can shelter in place," said the chief. "Other events, if we had to evacuate the site, there’s plans if we had to evacuate the site. If we have mass casualty incidents, there’s a plan for that also.”
For his part, the fire department vets the museum, its campus, and on-site vendors on fire safety before the festival, then responds to medical issues that emerge – largely related to overheated or dehydrated concertgoers.
“We work with EMS on transporting individuals from the place of entertainment to a safe area,” explained Meranti.
Meranti says he doesn’t see much of a spike in fire incidents during Solid Sound, outside of more car accidents due to the increased traffic.
“I’d probably say over the past – I don’t know how many years they’ve been here now, but this might be the seventh time they’ve been here, and I think maybe we’ve taken five people into protective custody – which isn’t bad considering the number of people that come in year in year out," said North Adams Police Chief Jason Wood.
Like Meranti, he says Solid Sound historically hasn’t pushed the needle far from what the department handles on a regular basis.
“Sometimes we’re busier than that in a given weekend," said the police chief. "It doesn’t have to be a weekend – it could be a Monday or Tuesday night, you never know.”
Outside the shadow of emergency preparation, Helme says the city is also intent on drawing festivalgoers downtown.
“We have basically a North Adams ambassador that’s on the MASS MoCA campus that’s there to answer questions about the city and encourage you to go and visit the rest of the city and if you need something or want to know something about the city, they’re there to answer questions for you,” she told WAMC.
To that end, she queries local businesses about what they can offer visitors to prepare a raft of information for MASS MoCA before Solid Sound.
“The first few years we definitely saw bumps during the festival days – that Friday, Saturday, Sunday, there were bumps in business," said Helme. "As it’s evolved, as they’ve fine-tuned themselves, we see more people coming early for the festival since they’re already going to be here for a weekend they come on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and that’s when the businesses are starting to see more business bumps from the festival. Then it quiets down once the festival really gets rolling, like 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, and then you see them back out in the community usually on Sunday and Monday. That’s when you see the bumps from the traffic.”
While Helme said her office lacked the resources to track exactly how many festival attendees hit the downtown, MASS MoCA offered WAMC an estimated impact of around $2 million infused into the North Adams economy.