Conceptual Plans Unveiled for Heritage State Park Model Railroad Museum
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city could host a major and "extreme" model railroading installation at Western Gateway Heritage State Park that city officials hope will transform North Adams.
Spearheaded by museum maestro Thomas Krens, the model railroad museum could be up and running by 2018.
Initial estimates are a quarter of million visitors a year or more and the direct development of 60 construction and 60 operating jobs.
"It could be realized in as short as two years. I tend to be optimistic about those things," said Krens, flanked by two train enthusiasts, William Weld and Michael Dukakis who also happen to be former governors.
"I would like to see it happen sooner than later, and if that was the case, it would be 2018."
The unveiling of the concept plan for the museum also included more information on Krens' proposed for-profit Global Contemporary Art Museum that would be located on airport land next to Stop & Shop. Krens and his team are currently in negotiations for leasing the property with the Airport Commission.
Krens said he would also like to see the redevelopment of the Mohawk Theater, promising a two-week Dennis Hopper film retrospective in honor of his late friend, but alluding to the need to develop the park before the theater.
The plans will balance what Krens is calling a "cultural corridor" between Williamstown and North Adams, but which is heavier on the Williamstown side. His art museum will be a connector in the middle, and the park and, eventually, the theater will help fill out the east side of the Route 2 corridor.
"Much like Mass MoCA [it] can be a game-changer for this city and for this greater region," said Mayor Richard Alcombright. "The new plan envisions a Williamstown-North Adams cultural corridor that will solidify this city as a cultural, education and economic destination for many, many years."
Alcombright said the proposals align with the city's Vision 2030 master plan, which points to the moribund Heritage State Park as having the potential to be a key economic driver, and the more conceptual plans of the Partnership for North Adams.
The partnership, in fact, is sponsoring a conceptual development study of the model railroad proposal expected to be completed by the end of this year. Krens estimated about six months to build a detailed plan off that study, with bidding possible as soon as late spring.
The railroad museum would incorporate intricate, realistic modeling and engineering, and be inspired by Disney's theme park engineering and Hamburg, Germany's Minatur Wunderland, which sees more than a million visitors a year.
A prototype is actually being built in Krens' 3,000 square-foot Williamstown basement, a concept that had, like the art museum, originally been intended for a Chinese audience. But the 25-hour flights had Krens looking closer to home, which led to talks with the mayor and John DeRosa, the city solicitor and CEO of the partnership.
The plans have the endorsement of both Weld and Dukakis, who both played roles during the development of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the brainchild of Krens. Weld joked that "it was so counter-intuitive it had a good chance of working."
Dukakis, who described himself as a "rail fanatic," said his one regret on Saturday, "was that I couldn't take a passenger train through the Hoosac Tunnel and avoid having to drive three hours."
He recalled his first meeting with Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art, when he proposed an off-the-wall idea of turning the Sprague Electric mills into an art museum.
"I've been very frustrated with the Heritage Park program, especially with this one, which as you know was created to celebrate railroads, which is the history of this city and this region," said the governor, who had implemented the heritage parks program during his tenure. "When John DeRosa first told me about the ideas that Tom had ... I was really excited.
"This is terrific ... you've got great opportunities here."
Weld said it appeared a "perfect complement to Mass MoCA and to the Clark" and that he did not anticipate problems with financing.
"We think we can do as well as Hamburg or even better," he said. "Give me a $600,000 revenue stream and even I can find $10 million to finance the developments here in Heritage Park."
Krens believes the revenue streams from rentals to buildings in the park will form the base for funding, and held out the possibility of state grants or low-cost loans. The for-profit art museum on Route 2 will be privately funded. A recent attempt to create an artisans' market at the park failed for lack of financing.
"We don't have to build it all from scratch," he said of the park. "Governor Dukakis already did that 30 years ago. That first investment is kind of riding here. ... It should be fairly inexpensive."
The buildings on the south side of the park would be renovated for retail, likely tied into the model railroad and Mass MoCA, and a microbrewery, a concept for Freight Yard Pub that's been bandied about for awhile. The current railcar sitting on the sidetracks would be removed and replaced by dining cars for restaurant. The North Adams Museum of History and Science would move to Building 6, where Northern Berkshire Community Television currently is. The state's museum would also have to move.
Alcombright cautioned that proposal is conceptual at this point, but the Department of Conservation and Recreation would be part of that planning.
"As this thing progresses and as it grows, we will start to have those conversations," he said.
Another proposal for a shared museum space at the former Sons of Italy is tied into the still on-the-drawing-board plan for a pedestrian underpass to the Berkshire Scenic Railway.
Richard Gluckman, the principal in Gluckman Tang Architects, a longtime colleague of Krens, is working on both Krens' museums.
The model railroad would cover about 25,000 square feet, or about 2 miles of track, in the 100-foot long Building 4, where the state's Hoosac Tunnel exhibit is located, and an addition with 30-foot ceilings that will bring the length to 670 feet. The entire thing would be computerized, with hundreds of thousands lights, interactive installations, cities to scale and areas where visitors can look down on the display.
The trains are highly detailed and accurate replicas of real locomotives, costing between $6,000 and $10,000. Gluckman said there are fewer than a dozen craftsman doing this type of work, including Rod Stewart.
"It's these trains, these exquisite models that testify to the level of detail and realism we're going to try to achieve," he said. "It's an art form to be able to do this."
The installation would also include landscaping that will include a historical view of North Adams, likely during the heyday period when Heritage Park was part of a functioning railyard — when the city "held the Western Gateway."
It also will incorporate a more contemporary landscape that fits with Mass MoCA, using architectural models from a host of well-known architects and designers, including a number of Pritzker winners. One sleek, streamlined model on display of a conceptual Guggenheim museum for Lithuania by Zaha Hadid had just been refurbished by T&M Automotive. Another was provided by Frank Gehry.
Krens "cultural corridor" is also keyed to a refrain repeated by Mass MoCA's director Joseph Thompson: to create enough attractions that people feel they have to stay more than a day to see them all.
He had initially considered 150,000 visitors a year but Thompson convinced him it could be double.
"If that's true, that will transform North Adams, because those people are not coming here now," said Krens.
Tom Krens explains the idea behind an "extreme" model train installation proposed at Heritage State Park #NorthAdamsMAPosted by iBerkshires.com on Saturday, December 5, 2015
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