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North Adams Officials Debate Merits of Cultural Director during Budget Discussions

By Patrick Donges


North Adams, MA – At their June 14 meeting, the North Adams City Council passed a stringent budget for 2012 that cut several full and part-time positions in both City Hall and city schools.

Even more cuts may be imminent, according to Mayor Richard Alcombright, if city residents do not pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override measure that would raise property taxes by $1.2 million to cover a deficit.

While several departments lost personnel, it was the hiring of a new Director of Tourism and Cultural Development that garnered the most debate.

The position was vacated in March after being held for ten years by Rod Bunt; city council members made motions to cut both the position and the entire department. Here councilor Lisa Blackmer states her case for removing the position.

"Most of the activities that are handled by that office were done by someone else, either another department, another non-profit, or just a committee of people who wanted to do it. It's important to plan these events but the reason we want this position is to promote people coming to the area."

Blackmer said she would rather see part of the salary, just more than 34,000, spent on revamping the city's online tourism presence, adding that the office had been bogged down by fundraising instead of developing contacts with potential visitors and residents.

Councilor Keith Bona agreed that the position had not been functioning as it was intended. As a downtown retailer and small business owner, Bona described his interactions with recent tourists.

"Tourists were interested in learning more about housing. Could we grab a few that might start a business here? That's where I see where a tourist director would have a longer effect."

Here Alcombright responds to those critical of funding the position.

"We're talking about four cents per $1000 on the tax rate, and I would think that we would owe it to our only growing segment of our economy, that we belly up to the bar for this."

"I only think of Megan Whilden and I think of what she has accomplished."

At her office at Pittsfield's Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, Pittsfield Director of Tourism and Cultural Development Megan Whilden said cultural development can be an important part of overall economic development.

"It's a really important thing for any community to do and to have, and a small investment can yield very big results. My budget is one of the very smallest in the city, but I think out impact has been tremendous."

Spending in the Pittsfield tourism department was approved for 2012 at about $107,000, more than double the $51,000 approved in North Adams.

Whilden cited growth of the city's downtown; over 40 new businesses and "cultural hot spots" have opened and remained open in the city in the past six years, with twelve of those opening in the past 12 months.

"What we do plays a part, and an important part that can sometimes seem intangible to people who are used to bricks and mortar."

Whilden also addressed concerns brought up by North Adams councilors regarding the increased responsibilities of the newly drafted job description for their incoming director, saying it will take more than just city employees to achieve results.

"Everything is done in collaboration with others, whether it's volunteers or businesses or organizations."

One of the organizations North Adams already collaborates with to increase development is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known as Mass MoCA. Joe Thompson is Mass MoCA's director.

"We know, just from very near at hand in Pittsfield, but also all across the nation that well planned, smart, cultural tourism and development can reap many gains. It's a position that can truly pay for itself."

Thompson said Mass MoCA welcomes all the help the museum can get in putting North Adams on the map as a cultural destination, adding that the first step is attracting visitors to the county.

"Being part of that conversation and being in the mix is really important, and so we look forward to meeting the fresh blood in North Adams."