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Sue Bush
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Incumbent Mayor John Barrett III Seeking 12th Term

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Saturday, October 22, 2005

Incumbent Mayor John Barrett III•SEE VIDEO INTERVIEW

North Adams – Mayor John Barrett III is the longest-serving elected mayor in the state and is seeking reelection to a two-year term in the city’s Corner Office. If returned to office, Barrett will begin a 12th mayoral term in January.

His longevity as mayor hasn’t diminished his passion for the city and its’ people, he said during an Oct. 20 interview conducted at City Hall; in fact, the 58-year-old Barrett said he is energized by the city’s forward progress and is ready to tackle another term. A city election is scheduled for Nov. 8.

Mayors are elected to be community leaders by friends and neighbors, Barrett said, and added that he values voter confidence and support.

“I’ve been honored for 22 years now to be in that position,” Barrett said. “And it has been a labor of love.”

Barrett lives at 229 Corinth St. and holds a masters degree in education earned at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He was married to Eileen Barrett, who died several years after Barrett was first elected mayor. Barrett founded the Eileen A. Barrett Oncology Center and Foundation at the North Adams Regional Hospital; he has termed the center the personal achievement of which he is most proud.

Barrett is being challenged by Walter L. Smith Jr., 54, of 225 East Main St..

Fire in the Belly

Barrett is eager to continue serving the city and guiding what is almost universally perceived as an economic and cultural renaissance that has not only eclipsed past negativity but simultaneously generated a national, and in some instances, international, limelight.

“What I’ve found is that the job of mayor is never finished,” Barrett said. “There’s always something new. There are some things that I want to see happen over the next two years. The most important aspect of running again is that I still have the fire in the belly. I have a desire to get up each and every morning and do the job.”

“The job” is always challenging and Barrett acknowledged experiencing moments “in which I say ‘why am I here?’”

And he himself can answer the question, he said.

“It’s a complete love of not only the city but the people and the impact that I can have in a positive way,” Barrett said.

Optimism and Disappointment

“Doing the job” resulted in a glimmer of optimism for proposed development at the K-mart plaza; Barrett said that recent meetings with Neil H. Ellis, the CEO of K-mart property owner First Hartford Realty Corp., led to some promising discussions.

“I fully expect within the next year, maybe even sooner, we’re going to see a lot of things happen with the old K-mart building and the L-shaped mall,” he said. “Our discussion was good, it was fruitful, and I’m very hopeful that things will happen.”

But Barrett said he is not as optimistic about a Nigro Development proposal for a Route 8 property.

Nigro officials withdrew a shopping center proposal from the city’s review and permit process earlier this month after postponing several scheduled hearings about the project and after Adams and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission officials raised a laundry list of questions about the project.

“The Adams Selectmen hurt that [project] badly with their comments about the sewer and their opposition,” Barrett said, referring to an existing city agreement with the town that allows specific city connections to a town sewer.

In August, Adams Town Administrator William Ketcham questioned the city’s plan to connect the Nigro project to the sewer without an amendment to the sewer contract and also said that existing sewer pipes located in the town would probably not be able to handle the increased wastewater flow.

“They made a terrible mistake,” Barrett said, and added that the proposed development may not go forward.

If Adams officials had contacted him about their concerns, Barrett said that he would have met with them and discussed the matter.

“But because of their reaction, the way they went about it seriously jeopardized [the project],” Barrett said. “They could end up with something they don’t want when it’s all said and done.”

Mohawk Theater and Eagle Street

Barrett said that he’s tried to bring one major project of lasting impact to completion during each of his two-year terms. A major North Adams Public Library renovation project was a focal point of the current term; with that project completed, Barrett said a Mohawk Theater renovation project is on the city’s front burner.

The proposed renovation would keep the Main Street movie house landmark in place and deliver new life as a performing arts center, Barrett said.

The proposal has been described as a “multi-million dollar project.”

During an August visit to the city, U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy pledged his continuing political support to the project. Kennedy is working to acquire $280,000 in federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds for the theater renovation; Barrett noted that Kennedy’s support comes as a result of the positive changes occurring within the city.

“It took years to develop that relationship with the Senator, and thank God that I have,” Barrett said. “He’s been very supportive of what we’ve done in North Adams.”

The theater design process is underway and construction could begin within the next two years, Barrett said. He said he believes that the project qualifies as an economic development package because construction workers will be hired and are likely to patronize downtown establishments. Downtown traffic would be generated, and the center could be the catalyst that brings about an Eagle Street business revival.

That revival might be further advanced if the owner of two Eagle Street buildings would agree to sell the properties, Barrett said.
Barrett did not identify the property owner but said that he believes there is private sector investor interest in purchasing the sites and creating an inn.

“I have what I believe are interested investors who would love to do that, but they are not going to come in and pay a bazillion dollars for those buildings,” Barrett said and added that the properties are in need of significant repair.

An inn could be the key to an Eagle Street business upturn and could contribute to downtown growth as well, Barrett said.

“It would be tremendous,” he said. “I get excited just talking about it. My biggest struggle as mayor has been dealing with those in the private sector, property owners who just sit on their property, not do anything, and think somebody is going to come along and give them a bazillion dollars. I would think they would want to give something back to the community and make money at the same time. That’s the frustrating part of my job.”

Barrett said the theater and Eagle Street aren’t the only pending projects. Positive actions affecting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ice-skating rink and the Armory building are on the horizon, Barrett said. He noted the ongoing construction at the Daniel Alcombright youth athletic field and $2 million in federal transportation funds awarded the city earlier this year. The revenues are destined for work behind the Mohawk Theater as well as a continuation of a citywide beautification project. Streetscape improvements associated with the beautification endeavor are set to begin next year, Barrett said.

“There’s a lot of things out there that I would like to see through to completion,” Barrett said. “A lot of good things are happening.”

The Bad Times

The “good things” are a stark contrast to Barrett’s early years as mayor, and he stated candidly that although he’d sought and won other elected positions, the mayor’s job “was a job I never really wanted.”

But economic downturns that hit the city during the late 1970s and early 1980s robbed city residents of their pride and subsequent negative publicity attacked the city’s dignity as well, Barrett said, and that caused him to seek his first mayoral term in 1983.

Barrett was elected and took office in 1984.

“The community had lost its sense of pride, they were down on themselves,” Barrett said. “And so were others; they were saying some terrible things about this community.”

The “terrible things” being said conflicted with what Barrett said he saw as a youth working in his father’s restaurant. Barrett’s image of the city was rooted in a strong community, a community filled with residents who’d already prevailed over difficult eras such as the depression of the 1930s, he said.

The mood sweeping the city during those days galvanized him to action, he said.

“We were a crumbling community at that time,” Barrett said. “I can remember my [campaign] slogan at that time; ‘In Order to Attract, We Have to be Attractive,’ and not only to others but to ourselves.”

Every Right To Be Proud

Barrett said he believes that his greatest achievement as mayor has been reversing a negative city image and restoring the pride to the community.

“We’re not that ‘dirty old mill town’ anymore, we’re not that ‘sorry gateway to anywhere,’” Barrett said, referring to written comments published some years ago in a Yankee magazine article. “Now, we’re written about very positively in all types of magazines from National Geographic to the Wall Street Journal to the Boston Globe.”

And city residents deserve much of the credit for the turnaround, Barrett said.

“The citizens have every right to be proud because none of it would have happened if they hadn’t been supportive and believed in what my administration was trying to accomplish.”

High Standards and Site Review

During Barrett’s first six months as mayor, the city lost almost 2,500 jobs, and was at what many believe was its lowest point. Some of city council challengers are new to the city and may not realize just how much work was required to turn things around, Barrett said.

“I don’t think they understand what this community was like and how bad the times were,” he said. “They’ve been critical of some of the things that we had to put in place that actually changed our community and made it better.”

A vision for the city accompanied by a site review process created much of the change, Barrett said, and recalled the first Stop and Shop supermarket plaza proposal.

Company officials initially wanted to erect a site similar to a Stop and Shop store located at the Allendale Shopping Center in Pittsfield, Barrett said. City officials objected to the design and insisted that a more attractive project be built at the State Road property. Stop and Shop officials balked at the city’s stance, and said that they would not develop a city-based property.

“And we said ‘OK,’” Barrett said. “And they came back, and they came back with a project that is now a signature store.”

Setting a high standard and holding to it led to a much better result, Barrett said.

“It would have been easy to sell ourselves cheap,” Barrett said. “But we didn’t set our standards lower, we set our standards higher and we started to do some beautiful things.”

A site review process is the mechanism that permits change and allows for improvements such as greenspace, signage and lighting, Barrett said.

MoCA and A Diverse Economy

City residents showed their ability to consider change when the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art plans were revealed. Barrett said he cannot recall a single negative newspaper communication from a city resident about the proposal during a 14-year concept to completion span.

“They were a little skeptical if it would work, but they stayed the course and they should receive most of the credit for what happened,” Barrett said. “It would have been easy for them to take potshots.”

MASS MoCA and a growing arts community has been a catalyst for progress but the city isn’t a one-trick economic pony, Barrett said.

He cited the Excelsior Print and Excelsior Engraving firms, which employ about 400 individuals, as well as the Tog manufacturing company. City officials are working with officials at the financially troubled North Adams Regional Hospital to keep the hospital viable. The hospital employs close to 500 people, Barrett said.

“We have over 300 [people] working at our college [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts] and we have the numerous small businesses that we brought to the city,” Barrett said. “So it isn’t all about the arts.”

But the arts and MoCA have spawned projects that Barrett said would not likely have occurred in their absence. Those who are critical of the arts should consider the impact of MoCA, he said.

“Do they really think ‘Porches’ [inn], a $5 million project, would have been built if MASS MoCA hadn’t been here?” Barrett said. “Do they really think private sector investment would have happened if it hadn’t been for the influence of MASS MoCA on this community? They are a very positive impact.”

Critics and A Vision

Barrett questioned whether critics of his administration have contributed to efforts such as hiring a summertime MASS MoCA “greeter” who encourages museum visitors to tour the downtown, or donated any monies toward the operation of a trolley-style bus, which Barrett said costs the city $5,000 to $6,000 a year to operate.

Barrett said that developing a master plan for the city could cost as much as $200,000, and added that such a document would probably “sit on a shelf.”

“We don’t need a master plan,” he said. “We need a vision for this community, and hopefully I’ve provided that and will continue to provide that for the next two years.”

Something For Everybody

Newcomers to the city are probably being drawn by the city’s ongoing revival, Barrett said.

“I’d like to think they are coming here because they like what’s happening in the city of North Adams,” he said. “A lot did come for that reason, and for the affordability of it. I’ve tried to build a community in which there’s something for everybody. We’re building an economy that’s diversified. We’ve kept our expenses down and we’ve worked very hard at it. Most importantly, we want to make it affordable to the working class people.”

Barrett said he’s proud of the city’s schools – “Don’t buy into that our educational system isn’t as good as any; I happen to think it’s better than most, if not all, Western Massachusetts” – and the family and community events held in the city.

During the past 12 years, the city has built one new school and completed a complete renovation of Drury High School. After-school activities are offered and the city does not charge fees for any school programs, including sports, he said. Student performance is consistently improving.

“We’ve made great strides in the last couple years,” he said.

He’s aware that he has a reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon among some city residents, he said.

“When they look at me as mayor, sometimes they see the gruffness and all the other things. I always tell people when I do something good, ‘don’t tell people, it’ll ruin my image.’”

Newcomers to the city may also see Barrett as “an old political act,” he said.

“I’m an old political guy that’s been in politics for a while,” he acknowledged.

But there’s more to Barrett than politics, he said.

“I’m driven by a sense of commitment to the community. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

Susan Bush may be contacted via e-mail at or at 802-823-9367.
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