Award-winning architect Frank Gehry addresses the crowd at Friday's event. The 88-year-old Gehry will design the model railroad museum.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Officials with the proposed model railroad museum are confident that they will have the funding in hand next year to move forward on the $65 million project.
The Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum has so far raised $2.5 million from private contributions and state grants; it expects to reach 50 percent of its goal by January with the balance by June 2018. The principals, including former Guggenhaim director Thomas Krens and former Govs. William Weld and Michael Dukakis, believe the findings of an economic impact study makes the for-profit venture attractive to investors.
"If it draws 500,000-700,000 visitors that produces a for-profit entity 25 percent rate of return, which may not be in the stratosphere of the private equity world, but is plenty good enough for those investors," Weld said.
Museum maestro Krens and Weld were joined by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry and other officials on Friday for a public press conference after a tour of the 10-acre site that includes Western Gateway Heritage State Park. Gehry's firm was signed to do the design for the 83,000 square foot museum that will run along the east side of the Hoosic River.
"I've seen more complex projects," said Krens, who worked with Gehry on his landmark Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. "Unless you start and unless you try to do it, you never know. I mean there are no guarantees here but my sense is that the product is sophisticated, I think Frank's presence in it is going to bring about a certain amount international attention and international credibility."
Since its initial proposal in 2015, the railroad museum's conceptual space design has grown, forcing it out of Heritage State Park and toward the former Sons of Italy.
"If you go into Building Five at Mass MoCA, go all the way through Building 5, then go into Building 6 and go all the way to through Building 6 and then go 40 feet farther," Krens said, giving an idea of the size of the project he envisions as a one-of-a-kind educational and historical display. "That's what it's going to be in one space."
The park, which the museum has entered into agreement to purchase for $1.2 million, would now house a Museum of Time, a distillery and shops and restaurants designed by Gluckman Tang.
"The Gehry building will tie seamlessly into Gluckman Tang's vision for the historic freight yard. It will also be designed to accommodate the detailed installation plans the EMRCA team has developed," according to the museum's MassWorks application. It is asking for a grant of $5.4 million to tear down and remediate the former clubhouse and dance hall and replace the Christopher Columbus Bridge. Should the grant be awarded, the completion of that work would be in fall of 2019.
More than half the funding for the project is expected to come from equity investment, another quarter from financing and the balance from corporate sponsorships, tax credits, and state and federal grants.
"I'm expecting if we hit the numbers professor [Stephen] Sheppard has uncovered in his economic impact analysis, this could make a serious amount of money for investors," Krens said.
For the governors and Krens, this is a bit of "unfinished business" dating back to 1988 to pump economic activity into the state's smallest city. All three had a hand in the beginnings of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that was hoped to jump-start an economy left in shambles by the departure of Sprague Electric.
While Mass MoCA has been an overall positive, particularly in recent years, there's been a sense it's full promise hasn't been achieved. The museum's director, Joseph Thompson, has been pushing for several year the concept of encouraging multiple-day visitors. Krens said it's a matter of changing the dynamic, something that the railroad museum and revitalized park, along with the development of the so-called "Cultural Corridor" between Williamstown and North Adams, can make happen.
"You have an established base, the multiple here is that if you get people to stay overnight, it increasee the economic impact by a factor of 8," he said.
"This project that Tom and his team are working on with Frank is going to inject a tremendous amount of life into North Adams, and therefore, into Mass MoCA, and we're really, really cheerleading for it," Thompson said.
The economic impact report by Williams College professor Stephen Sheppard, and funded by a $250,000 MassWorks grant, finds that the museum's construction could generate more than 2,000 jobs and add as much as $191 million a year into the economy.
"After completion of construction, we predict a long-term addition of between 1,400 and 2,000 jobs, with the local economy producing between $125 million and $181 million more economic output," a summary of the report states. "This would have a transformative impact on the region."
Nearly a quarter of Americans visit historical sites or museums, said Sheppard, making the draw for EMCRA three times that for venues like Tanglewood.
His report estimates at least a half-million visitor-days a year, although he points out the much more constricted Miniatur Wunderland model railroad museum in Germany does just under 1 million.
The affiliated projects also have to be taken into account, he said, noting plans for a for-profit museum by the airport, an art storage facility, the time museum and distillery. These would be an additional shot in the arm, he said.
Ancillary projects that could grow from the museum's existence include Krens' vision of a future North Adams with a park and boutique hotel on Main Street, a rejuvenated Mohawk Theater, a motorcycle museum and possibly an architectural museum, along with the Hoosic River Revival.
"All these 12 projects together, which have a sticker price of about $300 million all in, some private, some for-profit, some not-for-profit, some state support money, they will totally transform the North Adams-Williamstown area," he said. "I hope that the region as a whole will benefit from these projects."
The group also hopes it will have a crucial impact on the area's socio-economic needs. Dr. Gray Ellrodt, chief of medicine at Berkshire Medical Center, said health systems only have about a 20 percent impact on health needs. Rather, nearly 70 percent of outcomes and healthy living can be attributed to a community's economic and social health; poorer communities, like North Adams, have higher rates of smoking, obesity and drug and alcohol abuse, for example.
"These combined have a profound negative impact on a community, which can only be turned around, we believe, by profound and significant economic developmen," the doctor said. "If we are gong to effectively address the epidemic of diseases of despair for our community ... we need brave and bold economic development and investment in this community."
Mayor Richard Alcombright ticked off a long list of bold things happening in the city, from the opening of Mass MoCA's Building 6 to new branding and signage to the latest news of Gehry designing the model railroad museum.
"Because all of this happening, the city of North Adams is now positioned to be the place in Berkshire County, the place in Western Mass, and the the place in New England," he said. "Mr. Gehry, thank you for being here today ... I know you've done projects all around the world where your work is revered ... You've done work in LA, New York City, Hollywood, Barcelona, Paris, Frankfort, Prague, Dundee, Toronto, London ...
"How cool would it be for them to be in the company of the city of North Adams."
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