NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A new volunteer initiative is hoping to attract young people to the area by connecting them with like-minded residents.
Two Degrees of NoCo (North County) is a take off on 2 Degrees Portland, part of the city of Portland, Maine's efforts to grow its economy and culture. The idea is that tight-knit communities have less than "6 degrees of separation" and so become a well-connected resource for anyone considering relocating or moving a business there.
"This is a volunteer organization that is being run so that we have a bunch of 'ambassadors' to North County from Williamstown, North Adams and Adams that are willing to volunteer their time to show people around that maybe want to move here," Ricco Fruscio, program coordinator of the North Adams Chamber of Commerce, told chamber members at last week's networking event at the Richmond Grille.
"There's two parts of the program: the program is to connect the potter with the potter, the hiker with the hiker, biker with a biker, etc., etc., and when we get an army of ambassadors, we will invite people to come here and we will show them what we have."
While 2 Degrees of NoCo is not a chamber program, Fruscio is spreading the word to find ambassadors willing to spend time with potential citizens.
The county has been losing population for more than 50 years and the trend is continuing downward. Much of the large manufacturing — dominated by Sprague Electric and GE in North and Central counties — left years ago, exacerbating the decline. The region is putting its faith in a creative economy, small manufacturing and entrepreneurs to breathe life back into old buildings.
And that takes more people.
Fruscio referenced an article he'd read a couple years ago about "middle tier" cities becoming destinations for young people because of their affordability and vibrancy.
"They listed the top 15 cities that people wanted to move to, that were in the 24, 35 year age that are involved in art and creativity and the creative economy," he said. "The first city that people wanted to move to was Oakland, Calif., the second place they wanted to move to was North Adams, Mass., ...
"The conversation was that all of these people after college were looking for a place that they wanted to land and do their art and find a place to live."
Two Degrees Portland has a similar mission it describes as "a sort of 21st-century welcome wagon." It's an initiative of Creative Portland, a nonprofit supported by the city and working in conjunction with the local arts and business community on a vision to attract 10,000 young entrepreneurs and creatives over a decade. Creative Portland has a website listing a range of attractions and resources and matches up inquiries with one or more of its 250 volunteers who can speak authoritatively about what it's like to live and work there.
Portland, however, has capital to build on: It's Maine's largest city with a population of more than 66,000. North Adams, by contrast, is the state's smallest city with population just under 14,000.
But North Adams and Adams together are the second and third largest communities in the Berkshires; the city and Williamstown host two internationally renowned museums. North Berkshire is also very affordable in terms of real estate and offers a growing arts culture that includes the expansions of both the Clark Art Institute and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and the development of music festivals at Mass MoCA.
Richard Tavelli of Williamstown, who has a background in business and equity finance, said smart money is already finding its way into the region. Millions are being poured into the former Greylock Mill and Redwood Motel, and investment is eyed for Western Gateway Heritage State Park as well.
"One of the big things we need to focus on is attracting more entrepreneurs, creative people, small manufacturers, niche manufacturers, and others who take advantage of our wonderful quality of life ... and also expand our economic base," he said.
Ambassadors would volunteer to speak with or spend time with potential residents — maybe take them to a local eatery, give them a place to stay, show them around the area, introduce them to like-minded people. There's a spot to sign up on the 2 Degrees of NoCo Facebook page.
"We've had a deep decline in population for the last 50 years and it's time for us to do something about it and I think this might be the thing to change that," said Fruscio. "We think within the next few years, we're going to have an influx of people and we're going to change that 50-year trend."
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