North County Economic Forum Looks at Opportunities
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — There was a strong sense of optimism on Saturday as dozens of business and community leaders gathered to address North County's economic development.
From hundreds of millions of dollars in current public and private investment to local entrepreneurs to a dropping jobless rate to ambitious plans for downtown development, the future seemed brighter than in years past.
"I'm really excited about the possibilities here," Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash said. Ash said he and the Baker administration were there to support local efforts. "We're going to be willing followers."
The North Berkshire Economic Summit called by state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi brought stakeholders in the region together at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to consider opportunities and hear from Ash.
Cariddi said she's been privy to some of the conversations about development and wanted to bring those leaders together.
"I really thought people would be impressed with the work each other is doing and I wanted to bring people together to see what similarities we have ... see what the challenges are to what is going on here and some next steps," the North Adams Democrat said. "I think what's good that comes out of this is the additional little conversations they have to dive greater into the details and to make those really crucial friendships and partnerships that propel these ideas forward."
Speakers included MCLA President Jaimie Birge, Mayor Richard Alcombright, Mark Maloy of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission; John Hockridge of the Berkshire Education Task Force; Dr. Gray Ellrodt, chief of medicine at Berkshire Health Systems; Massachusetts Broadband Institute Chairman Peter Larkin; William Kolis of the Adams-Anthony Center; Jeffrey Thomas of Lever; and Thomas Krens, a co-founder of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art who is proposing two more museums for the city.
"The city and region has enormous potential through growth of what we have," said Alcombright, noting the reuse and renovation of venues from the Clark Biscuit mill to Colegrove Park Elementary School to the solar array at the landfill. "As the city has become more financially stable and the region grow in popularity, we've seen more private sector investment the last few years than we've seen in decades."
Among those investments are the redevelopments of the Redwood Motel and Greylock Mill along what community leaders are beginning to call the Cultural Corridor along Route 2 between the Clark Art Institute and Mass MoCA.
"We can't wait for growth to find us here, we have to court growth we have to go out and find it," he said.
Thomas Krens is hoping to tap into the 36 million people within a half-day's drive of North Adams with the development of the Extreme Model Railroad and Architecture Museum at Western Gateway Heritage State Park. One of the first models, a 31-foot tall Empire State Building will be unveiled in a few weeks; he expects to begin preliminary work by the end of the year with an opening date of summer 2018.
He's also proposing a privately funded Global Contemporary Art Museum at Harriman and West Airport. His interest in the city has spread to concepts for restoring the Mohawk Theater, building a boutique hotel inspired by the former Wilson Hotel, and adding a Museum of Time, distillery and chocolate factory at Heritage Park.
"I could be wrong, but I figure if I'm right 60 percent of the time, it's a landslide," he said, later adding, "we believe this will have a transformative effect on the Northern Berkshires."
Where Krens was thinking big, Jeffrey Thomas is thinking small.
Lever Inc.'s goal is to develop a robust "entrepreneurial ecosystem."
"It's entrepreneurs that drive economic development ... we support them here and drive them here," Thomas said. "They will draw revenue to the region, they will create jobs, they will create wealth and they will draw more people here."
Over the past two years, non-profit has worked with 16 startups and hosted more than 20 interns and has developed an investment fund to begin providing capital.
Lever grew out of a program at Williams College and is now working in partnership with Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as well as having interns from Bennington (Vt.) College and Amherst college.
"We're looking for companies that can really grow and pull in revenues from outside the region," he said.
Mark Maloy, data manager at BRPC, offered a quick summary of the current conditions. Some of his findings came as surprise, he said.
Often considered the "poorer" end of the county, North Berkshire actually had slightly higher average household income (by $200) than the county has a whole, and a lower overall percentage of poverty, although North Adams, as the region's largest community, had the highest rate.
Housing costs were also lower than the county overall, with the caveat that the quality might not be has high, and the jobless rate is about 6 percent, lower than in years past.
Education and health care continue to grow as major employment sectors, along with the lower-paid retail and hospitality. But the manufacturing sector continues to shrink and while there are jobs, there don't seem to be the trained employees to fill them.
Declining population and stagnating growth are putting pressure on municipalities that are closing in on their levy ceilings, reducing their abilities to fund operations. The Berkshire County Education Task Force is researching ways for school systems to collaborate or consolidate; Berkshire Health Systems is working with partners on a more integrative patient-centered approach to health in North County that addresses the socio-economic drivers of well-being.
William Kolis, who talked about how volunteer groups in Adams are working on new attractions and developing mentorships to help new businesses open, said the region has to change its narrative to survive.
"We have quality of life, we have two great educational institutions, and we have housing and we have jobs," he said. "Government is good and we need it ... but what we need more is private people stepping up to the plate.
"There are so many things that people can bring ... we can use the private sector to address the problems we have. Don't wait for somebody else to solve our problems."
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