John Barrett Intends to Remain Mayor of North Adams
Tough Questions, Revealing Answers
By: Larry Murray - Sep 19, 2009
We met with Mayor John Barrett in his legendary "corner office," the modest room in City Hall where he spends more time than he does at home. One wall is covered with photos, news clips, awards and other ephemera that a public figure collects during their tenure in office. It was evenly divided between citations from charities, community and veterans groups thanking him for his help and support, along with a collection of pictures from those that have helped North Adams survive and grow over the decades he has been in office. With Barrett are Presidents, Senators and Governors, as well as the Berkshire's own members of the Massachusetts Great and General Court at the State House.
His window faces Main Street where he can see the summer plantings of flowers in the center strip, and the many signs for the successful Down Street Art project. Another window reveals a view of Mass MoCA and the North Adams hills with their stacked houses and the hospital in the distance. A simple look out his window reveals the many projects he is working on, from the Mohawk Theatre to more housing in the downtown.
The Mayor has been doing his job for a long time, and after a few friendly words of greeting, is ready to get down to brass tacks. We brought a dozen or so questions with us, and reproduce his answers pretty much verbatim, with minor editing for clarity and conciseness.
In May of this year, Berkshire Fine Arts began covering the Mayor's race in North Adams, first with a detailed article on Richard Alcombright's candidacy. (Story Here) Later we followed up with a detailed series of key questions (Q & A Here) about the election for Mayoral hopeful Alcombright.
On the other side, we covered Mayor Barrett's July meeting at the Eclipse Mill (Article Here) in which he spoke about the founding of Mass MoCA, the Mohawk Theatre, and more. As Mayor, he has also been quoted in other stories (Like this one) over the years.
The first debate between the candidates for Mayor will take place on September 30 at MCLA.
This election interview with Mayor Barrett took place on September 17, 2009.
This is your fourteenth run for Mayor of North Adams. What is different this time?
What's eerie about this time are the similarities to my first run back in June of 1983. North Adams had just come off of several years of Proposition 2 1/2 which raised real havoc in the city. The infrastructure was deteriorating, the schools were collapsing, we were down to spending $5,000 annually for textbooks for 2,500 kids.
Now in 2009 we are faced with the same sort of fiscal challenge. The next two years are going to be equally stressful for North Adams as were those tough days in 1982-83 simply because of declining resources.
So the same issues that motivated me back then are at work today. I have the same passion for this job as I did then, with the added benefit of hard won experience in meeting these challenges. I have the relationships, the clout, built up over the years to work through this tough period. I've worked for 26 years to remake this city, to address everything from changing our economy to improving our school systems.
Most importantly, North Adams must hold on to the real progress it's made over the past quarter century, and not to lose ground. I have the passion to make sure that we keep advancing despite the poor national economy.
Earlier in your life you were known as a tough teacher, and as the leader of our city, you are known as a tough Mayor. Is that how you approach your job?
There's no question that my teaching background has helped quite a bit, and made me a better Mayor. Coming up through the schools myself, I wasn't a particularly good student. By the time I hit college, I wasn't doing that great because I was not properly prepared. It took a lot of effort to overcome my lack of proper preparation. And so when I began to teach, I wanted my students to be ready for anything that might be thrown their way. That means I wanted them to put real effort into learning. I've always believed that the secret to success is knowing more than the next person, an advantage I wanted my students to have in life.
My students were much like me, we weren't all the brightest lights on the tree, and we weren't born with the benefits that come from wealth and privilege. We had to work harder just to stay competitive. So yes, I pushed my students to work hard.
When I became Mayor, I pushed myself and my employees so that we and North Adams could be the best. That means I had to make demands of myself and of them that had not been done before. But I have never asked any city employee to do more than I was willing to do myself. I may kick back sometimes in my personal life, but in my professional life I have never worked harder than I am doing now.
As a city of our small size, and one that is so far removed from the center of power in this state, we have to work harder than others to stay even. We also have to overcome some large obstacles, we don't have the advantages of the other communities. We don't have a major highway coming into North Adams, we've been a poor community, blue collar, and not wealthy. But what is interesting is that we were thrifty. We were number one in savings per capita when I first became Mayor.
Everyone said we were a poor community, yet when it came to personal values, and a sense of responsibility, North Adams was among the best places in the state. We have been rich in other ways, too, because we always tried a little harder. Many of the residents back then had lived through the depression and knew how really difficult things could get.
That was the mindset of my parents and their generation. They knew how important it was for their children to get an education, a higher education if possible. That underlies everything I did as a teacher, and that I do as Mayor. It's the most important thing. Tough times can take everything away, but never your education, and that's why my parents and so many others kept their eye on that goal.
I pushed my students, I push my city workers, but I never push anyone harder than I push myself.
It appears that you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth.
Certainly not. Though I was fortunate to be born into a family that believed in working hard, we were middle class. They worked hard - just terrible long hours - since they were in the restaurant business all their lives. My mother was a waitress up until her 60's and my father worked into his early 70's. They owned a small restaurant on Main Street in North Adams with 38 stools in it. I would get up at 5 am to go to school - we were on double session in Williamstown then - and then in the afternoon, go to the restaurant to work there, before getting home to do the homework.
One of the things that did for me was to introduce me to the factory workers, the people who did shift work at the various plants. I came to know, understand and respect them deeply, they are the salt of the earth, and saw their struggle to make a better world for their children.
My own parents worked long hours to be sure that my sister and I received a full education. And they could be tough. I flunked out of college in my freshman year and wanted to try again, and my father said: "Fine. Now you can pay your own way." He watched and encouraged me. Then, when I completed my college education, he reimbursed me the money it had cost me. And you know, he taught me a valuable lesson that way too.
Has your vision for the city changed over time?
My vision has never changed in the sense that I have always wanted North Adams to be the best that it could be. It pains me to remember that it was the subject of ridicule and the butt of jokes for so many years. My vision has been to make it a community that we could all be proud of, that people would eventually point at it saying "Hey, North Adams is sure a special place," and it is something that has begun to happen.
There are still some naysayers living in the past, but as far as the national media, North Adams is spoken of in positive, sometimes glowing terms. And not just because of Mass MoCA, but for all its attributes. Take the Service Learning Programs in the schools. They received a Presidential award. We are also seeing the arts take place in our schools, a national model of what they should be doing in other communities. (Ed. Note: In fact, many communities are cutting back their arts programs.) Along with athletics, kids have access to music and art programs, that's part of the vision I have. In the end it is not about just passing a test, but about having a well rounded education. Preparing them for life and whatever it may put in front of them.
I admit that I have always hoped to see North Adams as a classy little city, the quintessential New England town that is a good place to live and work. (North Adams is already known as Steeple City because of its many church spires, and as Tree City for its numerous superb plantings.)
When you come down to it, the ideal is to have as many types of activities as families can take advantage of. We're not talking about George Bush sorts of family values, but real ones. They are built on diversity, of having everything from Steeplecats baseball games, to Kid Space at Mass MoCA, a wonderful concept that makes the arts meaningful to children in a fun way. All this must be affordable too, and everything we have done in the city has affordability at its heart. You can get free passes to Mass MoCA, The Clark, and half a dozen other museums and historic sites in the Berkshires at the North Adams Public Library.
We never charge fees for our kids to participate in our athletic programs, or our music programs. Any kid that wants to put the work into it, can participate. That's what family is all about, that is what makes a community that cares about the future to me.
In your meeting with the artists at the Eclipse Mill, you outlined your efforts to develop North Adams as a cultural and educational destination. Without the arts, without MCLA, without the Hospital, what would define North Adams?
We would still have a livable community of average people. What would you have if you took Williams College away from Williamstown. Probably not too much. So if you took those institutions away from North Adams, we wouldn't have much in the way of businesses and venues. Andrew Carnegie once said, "Take away my factories and I will still have my people. Then I will simply build bigger and better factories for them. But take away my people and leave me just the factories and I will have nothing but empty buildings with grass growing in them."
It's the people who have driven this community, and stayed the course. So you can take away those things and North Adams will still have its people, and they will build a bigger and better community than they had before. That's the exact philosophy that I used when Sprague Electric closed its factory. They eliminated the production line, and the jobs, but they left the people behind. Those people rose up from the ashes, came together as a community, and said to me: "OK Mayor Barrett, we are going to give you a chance to see whether this Mass MoCA idea can work." In the end, the biggest asset of any community is its people.
As the key visionary for North Adams, do you think your re-election depends on whether the majority of people agree with it?
Yes, obviously that is important. There are some on the other side who say they don't like the direction the city is going in, and my answer is, what direction do you want to take it in? I've not only talked about the past, and where we are now, but keep my eye on the future. Part of that is building new additions to the schools, continuing to rebuild our infrastructure, making sure we do more than tread water as we slowly move out of this recession. We must always keep moving the city forward.
My opponent says we should not be moving the Mohawk Theatre project forward unless we have a business plan. If we wait for a business plan we can all agree on, it will never get done. If we waited for a business plan on Mass MoCA it would never had happened. Sometimes you have to believe in what you are doing and take a chance. I believe the Mohawk Theatre is an important component of our city's future.
For those on the other side of this issue, I ask them what we should do instead of restoring it. Let it deteriorate as a vacant building? It's part of our history and heritage, and it also should be part of our future. So if we can restore and reuse that building for future generations, then we will have done our job. It's the same thing we did with Mass MoCA. It had to be done piece by piece, and it took us fourteen years from the day they announced the idea to the day it opened. It had more lives than a cat, yet we kept plugging away because we believed in it. And MoCA continues to grow to this day.
Much is made of getting the visitors to Mass MoCA to shop downtown, but that begs the question, how do we get our own residents to shop and dine on Main Street. Where's the problem?
I don't see a problem, they're shopping the stores downtown. The opposition keeps saying "downtown" is the problem, but there are two sides to downtown. You've got Staples, Peebles, Olympia Sports, Labels for Less, Planet Fitness and an eight screen cinema on one side of Main Street. That's one side, and it's the other side of Main Street that we are hearing the naysayers talk about. Yet I see them standing outside The Hub Restaurant every night waiting to get in. They don't seem to have a problem, nor does Gramercy bistro, or even Jack's Hot Dogs on Eagle Street.
It's very simple to me: give the people what they want and they will come out in droves. With Mass MoCA we now bring 150,000 visitors to our city every year. It's not our job to bring them downtown, it's the job of the entrepreneurs and business owners to do their own outreach. The public sector has done its job. We've improved the downtown, and we will spend another $2 million dollars next year for new wayfarer signs, for public improvements to make North Adams an attractive destination. We sweep their sidewalks, plant their flowers, put up holiday decorations and hold events that bring thousands down to Main Street. The rest is up to them.
The other element that older cities like Pittsfield and Lynn have been doing to revitalize their downtowns is adding in a housing component. We have been slowly making the downtown a place to live, and are seeing units selling down there for very high prices. And why are they buying in North Adams? Because of our attractiveness as a cultural destination, because of Mass MoCA, Gallery 51, Downstreet Art, and because of the natural beauty of our location, and the great restaurants, the mix of things to do and places to go.
We have done our job. Those that are failing are doing so because they do not have the right product, it's as simple as that. Never before have I seen as many people in our downtown after 5:00 as I have observed in the past two years. Many of them are visitors to MoCA and the galleries. The next step is to see if we can get them to stay later, into the evening. That will help the restaurants and retailers as well.
One optimistic sign is the new owner of the Holiday Inn, who paid $2.9 million dollars for it, and will invest another $2. million refurbishing it. That's a pretty hefty investment, and when I asked him why he said it is because he believes in North Adams and what is happening here. Not bad for a hotel that was in bankruptcy and sold at public auction 17 years ago for $225,000. These are the changes that happen over a long period of time, that people often don't see.
Take the Eclipse Mill, where I was at a function last night. The Open Studios Program began there several years ago and it received an award last night from the Mass Cultural Council. (Story Here) 7-8 years ago it was an empty building, and they tried to market it for 20 years as a place for small incubator businesses. Then Eric Rudd envisioned it as a place for artist's studios. Mr. Rudd and I have had our battles, but who did he come to in order to make it a reality?
When he proposed the idea, I said great, let's get it done. We got it through the City Council and Planning Boards in record time, less than 90 days even with the mandatory public hearings that can slow things down. Together, we were able to change the ordinances to make it work for him and the new residents. Today it is not only home to some 60 artists, but there are also a number of small new businesses that operate in that once vacant building. It is a great example of long term economic development, down at the personal level. These things don't happen overnight.
Most of the good things that happen in North Adams are the result of collaboration between government and organizers. The downtown celebration, the food festival, the arts festival, even the Eagle Street Beach Party organized by Eric Rudd, the city does its share, too. City trucks deliver and remove the sand every year, and the next morning you wouldn't know there was a beach where the street is.
Each year, Eagle Street Beach reminds me of the amazing number of children there are in the city. And Pittsfield has now copied it.
And other cities. Like Lawrence, MA. These are good community spirit building events that are not only fun for the local residents, but for those from the surrounding towns as well. Which brings up another point, and that is events like this, and the Hoosic River Lights and other artistic celebrations are so welcomed. North Adams has become far more diverse since it has started attracting artists, and the community has warmly accepted them. They've brought new life to an old city.
Sometimes it is the children that end up bringing the parents downtown to see some of these happenings, and that goes along with my belief that you have to involve the children in the creative arts in order to get the parents involved. The wonderful Mass MoCA KidSpace wasn't my idea, but I can't overemphasize the importance of making the connection between the arts and children. And now DownStreet Art has a storefront just for the youngsters, too. It involves the whole city in the arts.
You seem to have a pay as you go approach to improvements, has this slowed the city's growth?
It's a hard-nosed concept, but it is one that I wouldn't change if I had it to do all over again. The Library received a $4.2 million dollar addition and I think we only have about $400,000 in debt left, which allows us to do other projects. It may be slow, but when done, you don't end up saddled with debt. It's the same thing with the Mohawk Theatre, we won't be saddled with renovation debt when it is time to operate. I see the struggles going on with the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield - they have to raise a million dollars a year to stay afloat. It's a wonderful addition to that city but you've got to agree that's one helluva big tab to meet every year.
We did it that way with Mass MoCA too. They are debt free today thanks to the generosity of a lot of people who rose to the challenge. The state contributed the buildings at MoCA and the renovations. Then it was up to the operators to make a go of it. It's the same approach I am taking with the Mohawk. When that is completed, it can be turned over to a low overhead team to use it. For example, MCLA can use it as their laboratory for a performing arts program, or Mass MoCA for whatever uses fit their needs, and it can be used as well for wedding receptions, for community gatherings, becoming an asset to the city, its residents and its institutions.
You don't need a $100,000 a year executive director to run the place. We are already working with Mass MoCA and MCLA to make sure the facility is managed on a tight budget, and utilized as part of our community assets. We hope to move on to the next phase of restoration next summer, though we sure have lost one of our biggest supporters with the passing of Ted Kennedy who delivered another $200,000 towards this project this year to keep it moving forward. Even with $2 million in tax credits to help it along, we're still a few years away from making it to the finish. Things may not go as quickly as we would like, but I think that pay as you go is still the smartest way to do projects like this.
Some people seem to blame everything that goes wrong in their lives on "the man in the corner office." How does that make you feel?
It took me a long time to understand that I am the lightning rod. It's tough, and I suppose it comes with the territory. I have been painted with this image of wanting to take credit for everything that goes right, so it's only natural that those same people blame me for everything that goes wrong, whether it is my responsibility or not. When you make decisions, you are bound to disappoint someone. I just hope people realize that when I make a choice, it is the best interests of the community that I have to keep foremost in my mind. Sometimes that means disappointing allies and friends, and I hope that people can appreciate that the community always must come first.
Every day is a new challenge, whether it be solving a problem for a senior citizen, or negotiating with a developer who wants the best deal possible in term of locating here. The intricacies of running a city government are far more complicated than most people realize. I do my best, and rumors to the contrary, I do not benefit at a personal level, beyond the salary and perks the people provide me.
Do you think that the best thing for North Adams is to shake things up?
Change was in the air the first day I took office, and every day since. I was change before change was cool. We've been rebuilding the economy of the city in a different way, and started the process when nobody had done it before. North Adams was one of the first communities in America to recognize the arts as an economic development tool.
Let me tell you a story. I spoke with a woman yesterday who visited her nephew's house and saw my opponents sign on the front lawn. She asked why it was there. "Maybe it's time for a change," came the answer. "Do you see any potholes on your street," she asked. "Well, no," came the answer. "Is your street plowed in the winter?" Pause. "Uh huh," "And your tax bill is fairly stable..." she continued. Again came the answer: "Yes."
"So what do you want to change?"
The neighbor thought for a moment, and then took the sign down.
So that's the question about change. Do you want to change the guy in the Mayor's seat for the sake of change, or do you want to change what has been going on in the city. As Mayor, I bring about change all the time. Look at the library. Look at the skating rink that was about to be closed but is now operated by the city. That rink is used by 800-900 residents every winter. We took the Armory which is part of our history and are going to spend $750,000 there to re-purpose it for programs for our Seniors and our young people, for basketball and other programs. We have invested in playgrounds, in all parts of our city.
That to me is change, making a community better, bit by bit, year by year. And it's true, much of of the change that has taken place mirrors my own philosophy of building a better community. I am fortunate to have an enlightened Planning Board and City Council whose priorities largely mirror mine. We all want to see the city continue to grow and develop in sustainable ways. We don't always agree either, but we all love this city.
There are many times when I have a plan that I believe in that needs their support. I believe in what I am doing. Part of my job is to sell new ideas from the viewpoint of what is best for the city. If I can't convince them, then it isn't worth doing. I don't call them ahead to lobby for their vote, I simply do my best to present a strong and compelling case for them to decide on.
What question do you think voters should ask themselves before they enter the voting booth?
Very simply, who do they think will be best to lead their city over the next two years, based on the challenges that we face. That's what it comes down to, because they are the stakeholders and stockholders in this operation. I am the current head of this "corporation" and it is my job to make sure they build up the equity in their homes and businesses. Do they believe that I will continue to protect their equity and the investment they have in this city. That should be the sole criteria, nothing else.