Dick Alcombright Runs for Mayor of North Adams
The Candidate Answers Questions
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 14, 2009
Recently we met with Richard "Dick" Alcombright who is running for Mayor of North Adams. When he greeted us at the door of a modest, well tended home in the area behind Porches a big shaggy dog sniffed and wagged his tail.
Walking through the house we were led to a well manicured back yard with a deck and barbecue area. There was a lovely ring of flowers in the enclosed area. It seemed secluded and serene. It is the Alcombright's great joy and something they work on as a couple and family. There was the sense of a refuge from the stress of daily life and the new responsibilities and demands of a Mayoral campaign. It is a place to relax and take a break from developing a vision for a city and community that has been struggling for decades, since Sprague Electric closed down, to find a new economic base.
Because Berkshire Fine Arts takes a broad view of the cultural viability of the region the current campaign is of unique interest. This year Mass MoCA is celebrating its Tenth Anniversary as well as the completion last fall of its ambitious, vast, long term Sol LeWitt installation. The presence and growth of the museum, one of the largest in North America devoted to contemporary art, makes a given of the transition from manufacturing, to an economy based on culture and tourism.
Now that MoCA is established with stated figures of some 145,000 annual visitors, a mix of commercial tenants providing jobs and paying taxes, and the start on an endowment, it is the time to ask what happens over the next decade.
Alcombright is a business man who sees a mix of assets to be developed for the city. He discusses networking with regional political and business resources. He wonders how best to tap into the green initiatives advanced by President Obama and endorsed by Governor Patrick. How can the city get its share of this new development? Is there the chance of some light manufacturing returning to abandoned factories? Just what is the right mix of elements including, but not entirely focused on, culture and tourism. What relationship does he see between his administration and MCLA, which is growing and expanding under its President, Mary Grant, and Mass MoCA which is thriving under the direction of Joe Thompson? How best to work with these and other emerging resources by creating an expanded vision for the role of City Hall as a partner and catalyst for growth and development.
One of the most remarkable qualities of Alcombright is that he listens as much as he speaks. He is receptive to ideas and willing to modify positions. It became apparent that the allotted time in a busy schedule would not allow for answering all of the questions. He suggested "Let's just talk for now and I will take your questions and answer them by e mail." Several days later I received his response which follows.
Has MoCA brought financial resources to the city?
MoCA has certainly brought a financial resurgence to the city at several levels. Thousands of visitors a year spending money in local restaurants and hotels, jobs that have been created in and around the complex, and the dollars the complex itself pumps into the local economy in other ways. Also, some areas of the complex house several businesses and that generates commercial real estate revenue for the city. The Sol LeWitt exhibit and the collaboration with Yale University is another huge attraction that brings visitors to North Adams.
How would you improve the relationship between the city and MoCA?
I would expand the relationship. I would have conversations with Joe Thompson and others to collaborate and discuss ways that MoCA could expand their presence within the communityÂ…most specifically the downtown. Whether that is through partnerships, development, or finding better ways to keep visitors in the community longer. An important part of that is a marketing effort that includes what is going on in the greater community and not just on the MoCA campus.
Why is there more synergy in Williamstown?
Actually, I'm not all that sure there is that much more synergy in Williamstown. But, two things quickly come to mind. First, I think Williamstown as an overall community is more engaged in the arts and second, quite honestly, they have been at it longer. The Clark, WFT, Williams College Museum of Art have all been there for years and years. I do think that North Adams is rapidly accepting and understanding, in a very positive way, the importance of the creative economy here.
Is North Adams not encouraging to new business?
I hear time and time again that we are not a business friendly community. Whether real or perceived, it is a problem. We need to look at processes involved such as the application, permitting, and Planning Board processes and work to streamline them as needed without compromising good business standards. We need to review our zoning ordinances to remove any unreasonable barriers to entry into the North Adams marketplace. And if we are perceived not to be business friendly, we need to understand why and market ourselves a little better.
How can we get traffic downtown? How does DownStreet work and can the City play a more significant role in its success?
Over time, finding ways to push MoCA visitors into the downtown will help to create a diverse downtown of shops, services, art, restaurants, etc. Marketing North Adams as a destination as well as providing adequate and visible signage will be key.
DownStreet Art is an incredible effort and I congratulate Jonathon Secor and MCLA and all participants for their efforts and investment. My office is in a first floor window on Main Street and I see the people, particularly those with MoCA stickers who wander the downtown. Two years ago, they weren't there. While it is a seasonal effort and event, it certainly does provide a valuable and welcome spark. Does it work? Yes.The City absolutely must support these events with the goal of turning a temporary seasonal event into permanent businesses that will continue to bring foot traffic to the downtown.
There are a lot of restraints against the use of signs. How can this be changed toward the end of making visitors more aware of the range of retail and restaurants in the downtown business area? Why do we lack appropriately scaled and attractive billboards on the major access routes approaching the city?
Sign ordinance at certain levels are necessary but I think what we have on the books may need some softening with respect to allowing businesses to be creative and individualized. Restraints on size are necessary however color and design create an interesting atmosphere and add to the diversity that I think is so necessary. At some level, Papa Gino's, Jack's Hot Dogs, and Shima are all very different but all catch your eye and give you a reason to stop.
I also think that we could market ourselves better coming into the city from each end of Route 2 and also Route 8. With respect to downtown, our biggest disadvantage is that it is slightly off of the major routes and if you are "driving by" you could easily miss it. Well designed and obvious signage coming into our city is needed.
The city owns two trolleys which were intended to be used to move visitors from Mass MoCA to other points of attraction. People could leave their cars in the Mass MoCA lot and have the chance to explore the city on a well planned route. Currently the trolleys are rarely used. How might they be more effective?
The trolleys would be nice to have with a well-defined purpose. Whether that is to move people from North Adams to Williamstown (MoCA to Clark) as was tried a few years ago or to move people from the downtown to places like Windsor Lake, Natural Bridge, Eclipse and Beaver mills. The trolley that is operational is not in great shape and the other trolley, in my opinion is not road worthy. I would think that if trolleys are really in our future, we would almost have to start from scratch to re-identify the need and evaluate the resources. When you see trolleys used in other major markets, they are typically supported through public transportation efforts. Trolleys done well and done right will be a large undertaking and may not be the best use of scarce resources at this time. I would have to get more information and crunch the actual numbers.
Is there a development plan for the city? If not should there be?
The city needs to re-engage at all levels with respect to development. My first step will be to build strong relationships with our North Berkshire neighbors and welcome collaborative development efforts. I would immediately engage with all regional and state development agencies such as Berkshire Economic Development Corp., Mass. Development, the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and Berkshire Regional Planning. Finally, I would work with our local delegation to position ourselves at the state level for opportunities that may present themselves now and as we move out of this ailing economy. We must begin the process of forming strong alliances with all to "get in the game" with respect to development. We cannot discount any sectors and that includes arts, retail, hospitality, technology, green initiatives, and small industries.
In posts to the North Adams Transcript and even some of its editorial writing there is a sense of friction and resistance to the growing arts community. Artists are developing properties, buying locally, and paying taxes. There is an historic pattern that artists seek out abandoned and undervalued industrial spaces, like the Eclipse and Beaver mills, and bring economic improvements. Yet there is resistance to this process and its shift to an arts based economic model.
I think that the resistance and resentment are very strong words and that they misrepresent reality. I am convinced that for the most part, people in North Adams understand the need for the arts as an economic engine and a way to continue to grow this region. I think the disconnect may be that the arts have seemed to be the only true economic focus of the current administration and we cannot allow that to continue. There are many people in this community who are looking for jobs and growth in other areas such as retail, light manufacturing, technology, medical, education, etc. We cannot allow ourselves to forget that we need to establish a diverse economic base that will sustain itself and our community.
Because of the Storefront Artists Project and other arts related initiatives including upgrading the Berkshire Museum, renovating the Colonial Theatre, the relocation of Barrington Stage, a soon to be completed movie art complex, and a mix of upscale restaurants Pittsfield has made strides with an arts based economic model. Megan Whilden has been a force as director of cultural development. Who is the comparable go to person in North Adams administration? What can North Adams learn from the progress in Pittsfield?
I don't know if we have a "go to guy" in city government for cultural development. It would seem that Pittsfield's efforts though the mayor's office could be a model for North Adams and possibly North Berkshire. Megan Whilden, Director of Cultural Development has been instrumental in bringing together cultural efforts in Pittsfield. The question is whether the city could afford to have the position with the larger question being, can we afford not to? This effort could begin with a committee to look at successful models utilized by other communities such as Pittsfield and coming up with a plan.
Mayor Barrett has kept taxes low through a process of attrition. What is the long term impact of that approach?
Over the years, the mayor has kept taxes low through attrition which I'm sure he'll argue is a policy that has shrunk government and contained costs. The problem now is that we are out of options. As a community, we need to agree on what levels of public services are adequate and then deal with and accept the costs. Our Public Services Department has been depleted to what is essentially a skeleton crew. City Hall employees have been reduced to the bare minimum with both the Building and Health departments being understaffed in my opinion (considering the housing issues in the city). Fire & Police are staffed at bare minimums and with crime on the rise in this city, further reductions in staff are not an option in my mind. I don't know whether the staffing levels are hindering growth and development but if our goals are a lit and vibrant downtown, more events, less crime, less sub-standard housing, a better educational system for our children, more jobs, and a stronger economy, the costs of City services, including personnel costs, will have to be factored in over time.
You have been critical of the project to develop the Mohawk Theatre. Its renovation is nearing completion but there does not appear to be a business, programming and marketing strategy. Can you clarify your position?
The Mohawk Theatre has been a treasure in this community for many years and should continue to be a catalyst in our downtown and greater Northern Berkshire family of art venues and attractions. That being said, the theatre project, in my mind, has several obvious flaws that need to be seriously addressed before additional money is committed. To my understanding, the project has no solid business partner(s), no business plan, no succession plan, no marketing plan, and no funding plan. Spending the last 36 years of my life in business, I know that to invest millions of dollars into a single location without any real vision as to what the end of that project will be is just not viable. The plan that was developed twelve or so years ago was done before the Hunter Stage, the new WTF, Images, Topia, Mahaiwe, Colonial, Barrington Stage, and 8 cinemas in our downtown. My point is that the competitive landscape has changed so significantly that the reality of the Mohawk succeeding without a very solid plan for management and succession is very difficult for me to accept. I think that for the Mohawk to succeed we need to assemble a new group of "people in the know" to bring this project forward in a way that assures not only its success but that its impact is far reaching within the downtown. This project not only has to be successful but it has to be an engine for further growth. We have only one opportunity to get this right.
After sundown North Adams is dead. Yet there is a large student body because of MCLA and the nearby Williams College. There are also local teenagers with little incentive to spend time downtown. How can the city develop a more vibrant night life that caters to the needs of young people as well as adults? Why is live music discouraged? Could jazz and rock be an aspect of programming for the Mohawk?
There is a definite disconnect between what we aspire to be and what we are with respect to night life and activity in North Adams. The lack of night life seems to be a North Berkshire problem as well as a North Adams problem. I think that this concern will be addressed as the downtown evolves over time. A well lit and vibrant downtown that offers food, entertainment, and services should be a part of our landscape and certainly cannot be held back by the idea that everything needs to be shut down by 10 p.m. That being said, I don't think that we are in any position to say "build it and they will come". I think that future growth will determine what kind of community we will become. I also think that a successful Mohawk Theatre project could spark further growth and development in the downtown, most hopefully Eagle Street, and that it will help define what our downtown becomes. With respect to MCLAÂ…We could kill two birds with one stone if they were that "solid business partner" for the Mohawk. Their school of Fine and Performing Arts would be a wonderful fit within the Mohawk and would infuse hundreds of students into the downtown each and every day.
I have sat through 8 budgets in my tenure on the city council and taxes have increased each and every year. I will continue to say that taxes will increase based on what we are willing to accept as a community for municipal services provided. I am certain we can go no lower without compromising public health, safety, services, and education.
I also think that we need to designate someone or some office at city hall as the "Business Center". Create an entity where a prospective or existing business person can go for all of his/her answers.
Thanks to Larry Murray, Astrid Hiemer, Eric Rudd, Thor Wickstrom, and Phil Sellers among the many individuals who contributed to developing this dialogue. We welcome and will post appropriate responses to these issues.