Mayor has seen it all, including the museum effect

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 31, 2009
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NORTH ADAMS - On a recent morning, Steven Zanoli, 19, walked down River Street toward his apartment. He lives just around the corner from Mass MoCA. But he's never been inside. Zanoli, who gets paid $8 an hour at a local Burger King, says North Adams is a tough place to live.

"There's not really any jobs available," he says. "No jobs. Nothing to do."

Right on the Hoosic River, North Adams started out as a thriving mill town before making way for other industry. But the closing of the Sprague Electric Co. in 1985 led to widespread unemployment and empty storefronts.

Mass MoCA has certainly helped pump some life into the downtown. Yet even director Joe Thompson concedes that some believe the museum could have had more impact.

"When Sprague worked here, there were 4,500 people [in these buildings]. We have 60 museum employees," Thompson says. "People still expect us to be the economic engine. They look at the footprint of the facility and expect more than is realistic."

But Mayor John Barrett III, whose term in office began in 1984, says Mass MoCA has "exceeded my wildest expectations."

"I tell new people coming in, you don't know how bad it was," he says. "In 1996, Yankee magazine described North Adams as a sorry gateway to anywhere. That same magazine, five years later, [called] us one of the five hidden jewels."

There are some statistics to back up that idea.

In the early '90s, just a few years after the factory had closed - and during a recession - state labor statistics show the unemployment rate in North Adams peaking at 17 percent. Massachusetts as a whole was at 9.1 percent. Last month, unemployment in North Adams was 9.5 percent, compared with a statewide rate of 7.8 percent.

In 1990, "Eighty percent of the north side of Main Street was empty," says Barrett. "Now you're seeing condo units. When Mass MoCA was first announced, the highest-priced house in North Adams sold for $86,000. Condo units are now selling on our main street for $350,000.

"Are we better off than we were 10 or 20 years ago?" the mayor continues. "Yes. And Mass MoCA's been the catalyst."


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