North Adams, MA: Mohawk Theater
How can a former theater building be brought back to life as an anchor for the downtown community?
Even though the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) is only steps away, the North Adams downtown area has struggled to attract visitors. To help add vitality to the area, the MASS MoCA Foundation, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and the City of North Adams embarked on developing plans to turn an unoccupied downtown theater into a future teaching, performance, and community activity center.
North Adams is the smallest city in Massachusetts, with a population just over 13,000. Faced with severe population loss over many decades, it is also one of the poorer cities in the state. Until twenty years ago, North Adams was an outlier in the Berkshires, the far western county of Massachusetts known for outdoor recreation and for Tanglewood, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home. As a former mill town, North Adams was never much of a draw with summer visitors seeking music and the outdoors. With the construction of MASS MoCA in a former manufacturing space nearby, the city is reinventing itself as a destination and as a home for the arts and artists with affordable housing and live/work spaces. Without a critical mass of shops or attactions to draw people to Main Street, museum goers have tended not to leave the MASS MoCA campus for a two-minute walk into town.
North Adams used to be a one-company town, first as a center of the textile industry and later as a center of electronics manufacturing for the Sprague Electric Company; there were thousands of jobs based in the city. Besides some printing and other small manufacturing companies that remain, those industries have long since gone. Today, the health care and education sectors are the largest employers. The arts, as a total percentage of employment, is small, though city officials see it as a strategic sector to develop both for what it can do for the community and the overall economy.
North Adams has historically been dependent on state aid. However, as these funds have been cut for most municipalities, the city is challenged to find new ways to generate revenue, particularly in light of its low tax base and lower real estate values. These challenges are made all the more difficult when population decline is taken into account. With many vacant or underutilized properties, the downtown area was in need of investment and a major anchor point that would help draw people in. Community leaders identified the Mohawk Theater as a potential anchor. At the same time, they realized that it was not sustainable as a typical arts-presenting theater. There were many other theater venues in the area, including one in Pittsfield, 30 minutes away, and the existing performance venues at MASS MoCA. They decided that the building needed to be activated with additional uses and programming.
At the heart of the project was the city's desire to build the core of downtown and strengthen the tax base through building collaborative partnerships with other area organizations. “The project is about enlivening the downtown for everyone and this will help to create economic development for everyone as well,” said Blair Benjamin, Director of Real Estate and Community Development at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation. With a vibrant downtown, employers in the retail and tourism sectors would be more attracted to the area and could help catalyze other businesses and attract future residents. “Any major impact downtown will have ripple effects— the town is small enough,” said Benjamin.
The primary lead on the project was MASS MoCA, which worked closely with the City of North Adams and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). Since the building is owned by the city, it allowed the team to pursue public subsidies for the theater’s redevelopment. MCLA, an anchor institution in the city, saw the potential to become the main tenant of the theater and adjoining mixed-use space through its Fine and Performing Arts Department (including a growing major in Arts Administration). These new spaces would allow the college to expand its educational facilities and broaden its outreach to larger public audiences. MASS MoCA also saw the opportunity to use the theater for popular music programming 10 or more times per year, and other partner presenters would be sought out as well.
The notion of renovating the Mohawk Theatre had been informally discussed for decades, so the project leaders were able to build on the strengths and weaknesses of earlier ideas. Having a potential anchor tenant, MCLA, allowed the discussion to have more robust economic footing. “We’ve learned a lot from some of the other theater redevelopment models that have been tried over the years,” said Mr. Benjamin. The team started by creating a steering committee and a set of action steps that would help them recruit the consultants and advisors that would be needed to identify potential funding sources. For example, the team hired architects Bruner/Cott & Associates to help with the pursuit of historic tax credits and potential New Market Tax Credits. To ensure fiscal prudence and to provide economic context to the theater’s redevelopment, they also collaborated with the North Adams Partnership, the North Adams Chamber of Commerce and Williams College, to author a long-range economic development plan that included a market study of potential uses for the theater and adjoining mixed-use building and an economic impact study.
Through the economic analysis that was done, the team discovered the project was not feasible as a fully independent commercial enterprise. They would have to work with a continued model of public and private sector partnerships to help secure grant funding and tax credit options. While the theater has yet to be renovated, significant progress has been made on the initial plans of the project. Since the design and planning work has been carried out, the theater has received approval for approximately $1.2 million of state historic rehabilitation tax credit funds and approximately $2 million of federal historic tax credit funds (final amounts will depend on the actual qualified rehabilitation expenditures). The team is also looking to develop specific tools to measure the impact of the Mohawk Theater after redevelopment.
As with many large redevelopment projects, the time it took to bring the project through the various phases of analysis, design, and funding has been longer than originally expected. “We’ve been surprised by how challenging it’s been, even with all the help we’ve received,” said project manager Blair Benjamin. The planning phase opened up unanticipated options, including the strategy to link the theater renovation to the proposed renovation of an adjacent building for housing, which, as the analyses show, has the potential to serve as student or faculty housing. Though that possibility was never a part of the original vision, it has become a promising option, since it would make the theater redevelopment more feasible.
The Economy of North Adams and the Mohawk Theater Project: Establishing an Economic Baseline
Report providing background information and baseline data
Proposed Plan Drawing
Drawing highlights existing theatre and proposed commercial and residential spaces
- Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
- Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
- Williams College
- North Adams Partnership
- North Adams Chamber of Commerce
- City of North Adams/Mayor's Office & Community Development Office/North Adams Historic Commission/North Adams Building Department
- Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund Planning Grant
- Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
- Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
The Williams College Center for Creative Community Development (C3D) made quantitative measures of the "baseline" economic conditions in North Adams. These measures can then be compared against future conditions. The tools also include standard measures for analyzing economic and land use impact, tax assessor data, direct observation of Main Street building occupancy types, and a novel approach to street vitality measurements using smart phone monitoring technology.
- Economic impact of the Mohawk Theater project, during both the construction and operation phases;
- Current land use patterns in North Adams;
- Building use on Main Street;
- Measuring economic vitality on Main Street;
- Measuring the regional and national visibility of North Adams;
- Current socio-economic state of North Adams