The normally sparse City Council chambers were filled on Tuesday night for the council's organization and the mayor's first 'state of the city' address.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city must become a major player in the area's economic development planning and find ways to market itself while keeping a sharp eye on spending.
Those are the goals outlined by Mayor Richard Alcombright as he enters the final year of his two-year term and prepares for another run.
"We cannot continue to sell ourselves short by saying we can't afford this or we can't afford that," the mayor said Tuesday night during his "state of the city" address in the City Council chambers. "There are communities all over this country that are doing unique and interesting things to grow."
Alcombright's finishing a bruising first year that saw the city raise taxes and institute a sewer fee to cover a $1 million budget gap. He settled with the public unions over underfunding the health insurance trust that he said "might have been the largest and most grossly underreported fiscal fiasco North Adams has ever encountered."
He took over, he said, a city with "one of the lowest cash reserves in the commonwealth, significant housing and blight issues, a disengaged business community, a detached North Bekshires county."
Alcombright had to trim people off insurance lists and took city out of self-insurance; hired police, firefighters, assessor, treasurer and a new public services commissioner while making cuts in departments; fielded complaints over traffic disruptions for a streetscape project he hadn't planned and found that not only was Crane & Co. pulling out its North Adams division, two state offices were planning to close as well.
"Last year, many speculated I was not tough enough to be mayor of this fine city," he told the City Council, family, friends and city employees seated in the audience, as well as viewers at home. "And I would argue in one short year I've earned my stripes."
The address was given at the end of the City Council's annual organization, that also saw the resignation of Councilor Gailanne Cariddi as she takes her post as the district's new state representative.
The future budget isn't looking much better, Alcombright said, as North Adams faces a structural deficit that could balloon to $2 million. "The reality is we're taxed to the max and we don't have the ability to raise revenue much beyond what we already have. I will be looking at every department, every service to see what we can cut and I will continue to look at ways to create efficiencies. ... I am certain I will be once again faced with tough and unpopular decisions."
Alcombright said the city had to become a 'major player' in the region's economic planning.
It's been challenging but not all bad: The streetscape project is nearly complete; updating has begun at the Historic Valley Campground; Juvenile Court and state transitional assistance will be staying in some form; the Armory project is moving ahead; architects are drawing up preliminary plans for school options; and a Community Ecomonic Advisory Board and Youth Commission have been appointed.
More importantly, said Alcombright, is the energy and optimism that flooded the city. It's resulted in the creation of Develop North Adams, which has spearheaded the expansion of popular events, put benches downtown and pursued marketing ideas for the local merchants. On Monday, the city announced the Partnership for North Adams, a cooperative venture of cultural, educational and community leaders to draw investment to the area.
The mayor's also "dusting off" development plans that have been sitting on shelves for decades. The long-range goal is to revive the planning process and bring the city into alignment with the county's regional planning commission.
"I saw this as an opportunity for the regional planning commission to look at all of our plans and come up with the new document that would be the catalyst for the city to re-engage in the planning process, with our residents and our North County neighbors."
The first step will be a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning and Zoning boards in February; the public will have input later in a series of "visioning" sessions.
The city is also pursuing a grant to develop a marketing campaign to brand it as a destination. Plans for one of the city's jewels, the Mohawk Theater, could be announced as early as this quarter.
As for the budget, the mayor said the same process would be followed as last year, with his finance team and the council's Finance Committee working together.
"Despite all the challenges I've very,very much enjoyed my first year as mayor I'm very proud of the fact I've been able to excite and energize and motiviate and open up many of the democratic processes for so many in the city," said Alcombright. "It has been said that one cannot run a city by consensus, I would suggest with strong leadership one can."
The full text of the mayor's speech can be found here.