Alcombright for Mayor of North Adams

Barrett: Thanks but No Thanks

By: - Nov 01, 2009

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Many who were born and raised in hard scrabble North Adams, a former mill city in the Northern Berkshires, vividly recall the hurt put on them when Sprague Electric folded as did other major employers.

For many of those folks, come election day on Tuesday, they will cast their votes for incumbent John Barrett. At 26 years he is  the longest running mayor in the history of the Commonwealth. Through a time of continuing poor economy, pervasive  state and federal budget cuts they view him as an old friend, savior, and steady hand on the tiller.

The conventional wisdom is that Barrett has been there for them through all these years and why change for the sake of change? Particularly when like other mayors in the Commonwealth there will be a dog fight for every last dime.

Initially, he opposed the development of Mass MoCA, when originally conceived by Tom Krens, then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art, and pitched to former Governor Michael Dukakis. He later signed on.  Big Time. So much so that he tours the country as an expert on the dynamics of a creative economy as a catalyst for revitalizing former industrial communities.

With self deprecating and fatigued humor he likes to tell audiences that his taste in art runs more to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge than to the avant-garde work championed by Mass MoCA. Barrett never misses a Mass MoCA photo op or chance to take a lion's share of credit for his "vision" for one of the largest contemporary arts venues in North America.

The mantra of his notion of a creative economy is build it and they will come. Indeed, particularly after the addition of the three story Sol Lewitt building in 2008, the museum reports an annual attendance of  150,000 with some 120,000 in paid admissions.

Unlike Lenox, and the problems of Shakespeare & Company attracting tenants and partners for its 30 acre campus, Mass MoCA is zoned for business. Part of its strategy has been to lease space to commercial tenants with a long term partner in a yet to be developed building leased by the Clark Art Institute.

Yes, Mass MoCA is a magnet. It drew us and more than a hundred other artists to the city. We have planted roots in the Eclipse Mill or rented studio space in the Beaver Mill and Windsor Mill. Some of us have bought lofts and affordable houses or rented properties  We pay taxes, sell our goods and services, and shop locally. .

While Mass MoCA is thriving the artists, small businesses, and entrepreneurs are not. During a meeting with local arts presenters last spring we asked Katherine Myers, the pr and marketing director of Mass MoCA, what might be done by the museum to induce more traffic and synergy for the downtown arts and business community? Her response was "My job is to fill the parking lot at Mass MoCA."

Indeed Myers does a good job as a drive by on any given day shows an abundance of cars. Many with out of state license plates. But of that vaunted 150,000 visitors arguably no more than 10% make it downtown.

When pressed on the issue of  creative economy, and the role than Mass MoCA might play in bringing more traffic to shops and restaurants, Barrett's response is that he makes the city pretty. That means keeping signage drab and underscaled, cleaning the streets, planting flowers in the center strip, and putting up Christmas lights.

Approaching the city along Route 8 or down from the Mohawk Trail there is no concept of urban design. Visitors find their way in and out of Mass MoCA. Wham bam, thank you mam. Hello goodbye. I'm late, I'm late, I'm late.

After 26 years in office just where is the marketing, business plan for the city? Barrett states that such consultants are a waste of money. Ditto for urban design consultants in a community that vitally needs help in redirecting that unexploited windfall of some 150,000 Mass MoCA visitors. The city, and its next Mayor, needs a strategy to market the community as More than Mass MoCA. We can think of at least a hundred reasons to visit, enjoy, and spend money in North Adams.

Barrett has repeatedly stated that it is not the job of the Mayor and city government to promote small business. In shop worn anecdotes he ridicules struggling entrepreneurs as needy cry babies unwilling to pony up for his urban beautification projects. He chides them for not staying open during special events at Mass MoCA.

A year ago, during the busy events surrounding the launch of the LeWitt building, downtown shops and businesses were encouraged to remain open. While the DownStreet project was by then over the North Adams Coop Gallery was mandated by the Mayor to reopen for the weekend. During our visit while Mass MoCA was mobbed, yet again, the rest of the North Adams was a ghost town. There was zero marketing and promotion from Barrett or Mass MoCA. The artists who staffed the city wide galleries were hung out to dry.

The arts and creative community of North Adams are an asset not a liability. On this point Barrett and his long term constituency just don't get it.

Both candidates, Barrett and Alcombright, have discussed the need to create new jobs. Mostly they play into the fantasy of the old line Sprague folks with a return to light industry. Perhaps. Surely it is a piece of the equation. Higher education and health care are other aspects of the mix.

But the best good hope for the future of North Adams is an economy based on the arts, in all of its manifestations:  Tourism, hospitality, dining, graphic design, computer and software development, the marketing of arts and crafts. This represents a city wide critical mass that must be identified, organized, funded and promoted.

A marketing mantra should be built around the theme that "North Adams is More Than Just Mass MoCA." Come see a great museum and stay awhile to explore galleries, shops and studios. Lets transform the city into a work of art with performances and site specific sculptures.

We became involved in this vitally important Mayoral race because of the challenge of focusing on the creative economy. Arts and cultural tourism have been the engine that saved the city from extinction when Sprague closed. Barrett deserves, indeed demands, a lot of credit for that transition. But too much of his time and energy is focused on the rear view mirror. That was then and this is now.

While stumping a creative economy and selling the North Adams success story, at this point, Barrett's telling of that fairy tale is as quaint and old fashioned as, well, a Norman Rockwell painting. Thanks John. Now give it a rest.

Not that candidate Dick Alcombright has all the answers. Right now he is the better choice for the future growth of the city. But he needs to get up to speed. Fast. It's just a two year term with a six months honeymoon. He must hit the ground running.

Alcombright is often criticized for not having a specific agenda. Just what are his actual ideas and strategies?

What has emerged is his corporate management style. When problems or issues arise Alcombright intends to gather a room full of experts. To extract their input and, at the end of the day, make the best informed decisions. We endorse that approach. It is a refreshing change from the Barrett style of running the city as a one man band. North Adams needs a Mayor not a Czar.

Alcombright has proposed that the city employ an expediter and negotiator whose full time job is to encourage and facilitate new business. Barrett poo poos it as a waste of money. But this appears to be precisely the approach that is working so well in Pittsfield. Its $20 million development of a state of the art movie theater is about to open. Barrett's theater, the dreadful North Adams Megaplex, recently closed. Part of the problem was that Barrett nixed plans for an unsightly marquee off site.

Significantly, Pittsfield just landed a major development for B.J.'s because it had a shovel ready site and a skilled, city employed expediter to negotiate the deal. Meanwhile that derelict property on Route 8 just drags along. When we drive by it is slowly being dismantled but you can still see the Gringo's sign.

The development of the Mohawk Theater reveals the polarity and conundrum of the future of a creative economy. Barrett touts a pay as you go approach like the successful renovation of the library. While he sees the Mohawk as a valued landmark worth saving he refuses to bite the bullet by adequately renovating to bring it up to speed as a functional arts venue. It was built as a movie house and as such has limited potential.

By lowballing renovation he is endorsing another white elephant and cash cow. Not that Alcombright has a better answer. At least not right now. He would like to involve MCLA. Barrett says he has that covered. Everyone points to Mary Grant, president of MCLA, as a miracle worker. Rightly so. But the college has its own agenda and taking on the Mohawk is not a priority. Sure, MCLA and Mass MoCA should be a part of the mix for the Mohawk but both have other fish to fry.

The Mohawk needs its own management team and board to work with MCLA, Mass MoCA, and any other entity. There are a lot of potential partners. I provided Alcombright with an e mail and contact for the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts. If they sell out at the Mahaiwe, why not at the Mohawk? There is a lot of available HD programming that would be perfect for the Mohawk. This is a fast developing aspect of the emerging entertainment industry. It is just the right kind of challenge for the talent that abounds in North Adams.

As an internet site devoted to the arts Berkshire Fine Arts will continue to be a matrix for discussion of the progress and development of all aspects of the creative economy. Not only is there the agenda of moving forward but also a need for holding on to arts presenters, large and small, facing challenges and extinction. In Lenox, the renowned Shakespeare & Company must overcome staggering debt.

Here at home, the grass roots Inkberry faces the endgame of possibly folding. Too few have labored too hard for too long. There is no budget to hire management and hand off tasks executed by board members. While major arts organizations need tons of money it is just as difficult for smaller organizations like Inkberry to raise the relative small change to keep going.

Barrett keeps saying it's not his job, but struggling arts organizations continue to fold or relocate. A year ago the Mayor did his best to drive Hezzie Phillips and the Contemporary Artists Center out of town. They appear to be thriving in Troy, New York. Barrett's apathetic and mean spirited approach to the arts, other than Mass MoCA, needs to end. Now.

Berkshire Fine Arts endorses Dick Alcombright as the next Mayor of North Adams.