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BCRC's Jennifer Crowell leads a public session on the city's pursuit of a cultural district.
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Attendees encouraged adding in the blue - MCLA and Eclipse Mill - to the cultural map.
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Two sessions for public input were held, one on Tuesday morning and Thursday event. Crowell said the Tuesday event evinced similar comments.

North Adams Revamping Outdated Cultural District Map

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Jennifer Crowell and the city's events director, Suzy Helme, right, have been working on the application that stalled a few years ago.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — When the city applies for its cultural district designation, local artists had one piece of advice: think big.

On Thursday night, at the second of two public input sessions on the application, the nearly dozen residents endorsed enlarging the cultural map to include a wide swath of the city's downtown area.

The work on the state application to the Massachusetts Cultural Council began some three years but languished during a changeover in staffing. Now being spearheaded by Jennifer Crowell of the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center and the city's events coordinator Suzy Helme, the application is back on track with the anticipation of being submitted this summer.

Those attending Thursday advocated strongly for including the Eclipse Mill at one end and the historic Church Street to Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on the other end.

"I would rather turn in a map that's larger and have MCC says it's too big," said Crowell after hearing the arguments for them. "I think everyone in this room agrees we want to encompass everything ... it's really up to the MCC to tell us what's not."

The application process for cultural districts is on an ongoing basis, with no deadlines. Completing the process can take several months and municipalities are encouraged to assess their readiness before formally applying. What's required is a map of the proposed district with the key assets labeled for review, completion of the online form and supplemental documents, including a resolution by the City Council endorsing the district, sent by mail. Representatives from the MCC will conduct a site visit to determine the map and district's eligibility.

Pittsfield was one of the first communities in the state to receive the designation for its "Upstreet Cultural District" four years ago.

"That you have this designation makes you different than what other cities and towns across Massachusetts, and really across New England, have," Crowell, said, describing it as a feather in the city's hat. It doesn't come with regulations or restrictions so it's different from being designated as a historical district.

"It's really just a recognition that you have a lot of culture going on and the MCC wants to reward you for that."

Those rewards include the ability to tout the district in marketing, attract new people and artists to the area, she said. "The other thing that we're seeing with this is that it can be an asset when you're applying for funding. This designation is really tied solely to the city of North Adams."

Helme said the district would be managed through a cultural partnership that includes Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, BCRC, the Public Arts Commission, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams Partnership, Common Folk, North Adams Chamber of Commerce, North Adams Historical Society, Eclipse Mill and Art About Town.

The designation lasts for five years with an annual review on attendance any additions or subtractions of cultural or historical venues, economic anchors and green space.

Helme said there is no set funding attached to having the district but there are funding opportunities and cultural earmarks. For example, the year before, the MCC provided $5,000 to those communities that had established districts.

The preliminary map developed three years ago was bordered in red by access to the Berkshire Scenic Railway in the south, the Monument Square historic area to the east, the extension of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to Brown Street to the west and Porches, Houghton Street playground and UNO Neighborhood Center to the north.

That area includes Western Gateway Heritage State Park, all of Main and Marshall streets; American Legion Drive; the Hadley Overpass, river area and former Sons of Italy; and the former Kmart plaza. Not in the mix are Big Y (the Artery Arcade) and District Court; Brien Center and Oasis Plaza.

The Eclipse Mill and MCLA were in blue but not added in over concern that a larger district would be frowned upon because one major aspect for the MCC is the walkability of any district.

Crowell said walking wasn't an issue for either her or Helme, but it could be for others.

"The MCC has a lot of stipulations and guidelines on making it walkable ... They're trying to make it work for everyone and that's part of the process with this map," she said. "What we've heard from other cities and town that have gotten this designation is that lots of people start too big in the MCC's opinion and they start shrinking down to be much smaller."

Instead, those two areas were outlined in blue so the MCC could see them and determine if they could be included.

"I think our goal would be to start with a smaller cultural district and build it over years," said Helme.

But most of the audience disagreed.

"I think it's a mistake to make it a smaller one ... the world's headed toward walkable cities so push it," said artist and gallery owner Ralph Brill, who lives in the mill. Plus, he said, there are more things happening since the map was done three years ago, including the relocation of the local community television studio to Union Street. "It's a very serious corridor and if we don't treat it that way and let them know that I think it is a big mistake."

City Councilor Lisa Blackmer though the mill was at the edge of walkability, but noted that the topography was flat and there were sidewalks for accessibility.

"I do think the college and the Eclipse Mill should be included," she said, offering to get the resolution on the City Council agenda. "I think it's a good idea and I think it's time."

Tags: cultural district,   Main Street,   

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