A few years ago, I was headed toward the entrance to Mass MoCA when I passed two well-dressed women wearing the familiar museum stickers. They were apparently on their way out after visiting the galleries. One woman pointed to several of the buildings and exclaimed to her companion, “This place looks a little bit like a factory.”
Okay, so perhaps no one told them about Sprague Electric. Or maybe they didn’t bother to read anything about the history of the buildings in the brochures or on the signs. Or, horror of horrors, they didn’t even know they were in North Adams.
By the time summer officially arrives, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will be working on its sixth year as an internationally celebrated visual and performing arts center. And perhaps sometime in April (if it hasn’t already happened), visitor 500,000 will walk through the doors. That’s half a million tourists in North Adams in five years, not counting many who have come for other reasons, or for no special reason at all.
What happened to the promise that these tourists would pour out of the museum and onto the streets of downtown North Adams much like those who invaded Main Street during Sprague’s lunch hours?
Owners of some of the restaurants and a few of the retail establishments like Moulton’s General Store will tell you that the visitors show up in the summer and autumn, but they don’t represent the bulk of their seasonal business.
Mass MoCA has been an exciting and tremendously beneficial addition to the cultural and social life, and to the economy of North Berkshire. The performing arts events have introduced the community to a variety of talented performers, unusual stage productions, and a host of classic, but seldom seen films. And like the spirited dance parties in the courtyard, the events have given people something to do on a Saturday night.
The galleries have offered a challenging and ever-changing array of contemporary art that Western Massachusetts residents would otherwise have to travel to New York City or Philadelphia to see. The programs at Kidspace have opened a window to the cultural world to thousands of schoolchildren. And the businesses that have located in the museum have provided many jobs.
But the so-called tourist economy that has been so heavily touted for many years has not panned out to the extent predicted. What went wrong?
The usual answers come quickly from residents I have asked:
“North Adams doesn’t have anything downtown to attract visitors.” “Veterans Memorial Drive divides the city and discourages museum-goers from walking downtown.” “Mass MoCA has become an enclave, with its own restaurants and gift shop.” “Mass MoCA hasn’t done enough to connect tourists to Main Street.” “The mayor and city government haven’t done enough to connect tourists to Main Street.”
All of these comments may have an element of truth to them, but I believe there is another reason, perhaps the overriding reason.
Most visitors to the Berkshires come from eastern Massachusetts, or from nearby states such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Most of them, as well as those visiting from farther away, have a limited time to spend in the area. They may come for a week, or a weekend. So they read the brochures, browse the Internet travel sites, make a list of museums and concerts and interesting restaurants, get tickets to the shows, and book a hotel or motel.
How much down time do they have? When they walk out the doors of Mass MoCA, they may gaze curiously over at downtown North Adams, but one look up at the clock tower and it’s, “We have about two hours to get back to the motel, change, and eat. We’ve gotta be at the show by 7:30.”
How can a walk down Main Street, a visit to the history museums at Heritage Park, or some offbeat shopping on Eagle Street compete with concerts, fancy dinners, and long afternoons at the Clark, especially when much of it would have been reserved weeks or months in advance?
It’s time to take a second look at the tourist economy. As the primary business model, it is bound to disappoint. North Adams will benefit most from what is already happening, albeit not fast enough for most of us.
The presence of Mass MoCA has attracted new residents, many of whom are artists and cultural entrepreneurs. The influx of these newcomers has been responsible for the badly needed renovation of many houses, and for the birth of projects such as Eric Rudd’s Eclipse Mill.
The remodeled apartments and the other improvements to Scarafoni’s historic Main Street properties will bring in more new people. The addition to the North Adams Public Library, the rebuilding of the Hadley Overpass, and the continued sprucing up of the urban landscape will only serve to render the city a more desirable place to live. As more new people with money to spend on leisure and recreation enrich the population base, the retail community will expand to meet growing needs.
Rather than laying all our hopes on the deep pockets of tourists, the city must continue to strive for an economy that serves the needs of its residents first. As we get closer to our goal of once again having a vibrant community, tourists will find more reasons to say, “Look at all the people on the street. Let’s skip the Clark today and just walk around for a while.”