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Alcombright's Annual Address Touts Progress in North Adams
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
09:33PM / Tuesday, February 28, 2017
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Mayor Richard Alcombright addresses the City Council on Tuesday.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Richard Alcombright gave an upbeat vision of the city on Tuesday, pointing to the significant private investments happening in North Adams.

"We have a great core of folks who have committed or re-committed themselves to the success of North Adams and I thank those people," he said during his "State of the City" address in front of the City Council. "We have many more people 'pulling the rope' than we had seven years ago."

Alcombright, now entering his eighth year and the end of his fourth term in office, was referring back to his 2014 address, in which he'd asked residents to help pull the rope — or get out of the way.

Three years later, he sees more pulling — both from individuals and through partnerships — that's moving the city in more sustainable and growing manner.

The mayor pointed to the hope he sees in the as yet unfulfilled promises of the projects on Route 2 — renovations to the Greylock Mill and Redwood Motel — and plans for a model railroad museum at Western Gateway Heritage State Park.

The loss of North Adams Regional Hospital has not been fully replaced but the campus on Hospital Avenue continues to expand, with medical services being restored or brought in new by Berkshire Health Systems.

Alcombright also referred to work being done by individuals and city officials — from representing the city on the Massachusetts Municipal Association to bringing recognition from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to working with community organizations to promoting the city's natural resources.

Much of that came to a head, he said, with the city's participation in the Small Business Revolution competition that brought residents and small-business owners together to give the North Adams national exposure and contributed to a flood of goodwill and memories on social media for the state's smallest city.

"We saw the excitement in our community grow, the vision, hope and promise that I saw on the faces of so many during this experience. And while we didn't win the prize, this city won big in so many other ways. So many people simply wanting to see North Adams grow," he said.

Disappoints still abound — particularly the failure to get the long-vacant Mohawk Theater moving. The demolition of the landmark St. Francis' Church also left a hole that he hopes can be somewhat alleviated through a memorial park — if he can convince the Diocese of Springfield to donate the footprint of the church.

Much of mayor's summing up was similar to addresses of past; many of the projects are taking years to come to fruition but the financial impediments, while not gone, have become less pressing.

Unemployment is down, and a structural deficit that hampered budgeting since the Great Recession is gone. Reserves have climbed to $1.8 million.

"We are once again on target to close out another year in the black," he said. "Because of all of this, I am anticipating an upgrade in our bond rating."

Alcombright had initially planned to give his address two weeks ago but postponed it until Tuesday night when the jam-packed City Council meeting went nearly three hours — and included updates on the bike path, plans to sell off unused property and tax liens with the potential to bring in millions, and the passage of an "inclusive community" resolution.

"This city has so much potential, so many folks pulling the rope, so many people investing, buying homes, moving here because there is so much good here. Folks who have become the driving force behind so many good things," said the mayor. "They are our hope, they are the opportunity, they are our future, they are my inspiration, and they are the ones stomping us out of the years of 'woe is me' and proudly marching us into the day of 'look at me.'"


Mayor Richard Alcombright's State of the City address as prepared for delivery on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, and edited to conform to style.

Good evening and thank you for this time tonight to bring you some thoughts about our great city, where we are at, and hopefully some thoughts as to where we are going.

At the outset, I want to thank all elected and appointed leaders and board members for their commitment to our city. I want to thank all the hard-working and dedicated city and school employees. I want to thank our neighboring communities for the partnerships we have fostered. I want to thank all those who volunteer to help our kids, our seniors, our veterans and others in our greater community, and I want to thank the residents of North Adams for their commitment to our growth, our well-being and our happiness.  

I said this last year and I think it remains fitting: This is a wonderful time to be an elected official in the city of North Adams.

Fiscal

Beginning my eighth year in office, through years of fiscal discipline, with a seasoned and hard-working staff, a thoughtful and focused City Council, and some great things happening, I am much more able to focus on our growth than I have in the past. However, it is imperative that we not lose sight of the important numbers as they continue to get better.

Since taking office in 2010:

  • Our unemployment has gone from 9.8 percent to 4.2 percent.
  • We have gone from a $2.3 million structural deficit in 2010 to three successive balanced budgets.
  • We have re-built reserves from some $160,000 in 2010 to $1.8 million currently.
  • Our audits are very clean.
  • We are once again on target to close out another year in the black.

Several weeks ago, we had our rating interview with Standard & Poor's. Historically speaking, the city's bond rating from 2006 to 2013 was an A-minus with a stable outlook. As you recall and due to the recession and other internal factors, our rating was reduced to an A-minus with a negative outlook. Today, I found out from Standard & Poor's that the negative outlook has been removed and our rating has also been upgraded to A with a stable outlook. This does not happen by accident and I thank this council for their support around our fiscal practices and our financial team in City Hall for all that has been done to secure this rating.

This year to help further strengthen our financial position, we will be putting our tax title out to auction with hopes of collecting a good portion of the $2.6 million of unpaid taxes and liens currently on the city's books. This process has begun and I will be coming to council with proposals on how to best utilize this one-time revenue source. As any dollars received through this process represent unpaid taxes, my thoughts are to commit some of the funds to the tax rate and overdue capital projects.

I will repeat what I have said many times before, in my administration, policy always takes precedence over politics and sound business decisions always override special interests. And as we move through 2017, my commitment to fiscal policy will continue to be very strong.

Investment

We continue to see more private and public sector investment over the past two years, investment that will help grow our economy, add to and aid in stabilizing our tax base and enhance this new "cultural corridor" that is rapidly growing in this city and region.

  • Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's expansion construction is complete and their Phase 3 opening will be happening in May.
  • The town of Adams working with the city received a $2.6 million MassWorks grant to complete the scenic rail project.  
  • Greylock Mill project continues to move forward with the award of a $2.2 million MassWorks Grant for their Phase 1 & 2 parking and landscaping projects.
  • The Redwood Motel is moving along and construction continues with a slated opening date in June
  • Extreme Model Rail and Contemporary Architecture Museum (EMRCA) continues into Phase 2 of design with the help of a $250,000 MassWorks grant.
  • Proposed "Art at the Airport" is still very much under consideration.
  • Our Hoosic River Revival project continues to move forward on the South Branch of the river.
  • Millions being invested by Berkshire Health Systems at BMC North.
  • We are well on our way to having connectivity to the Berkshire Bike Path from Williamstown to the Airport as we partner with the Town of Williamstown and MassDOT
  • Our skate park, the UNO Center park, playground enhancements and further improvements at Windsor Lake are all ongoing

A couple of weeks ago, the Planning Board approved a business that will be manufacturing tiny houses right here at space located in the Windsor Mill.  I am told there are contracts for 180 units and that this could employ more than 30 tradespeople.

Millions in public and private investment are completed, in process or in development.

This year, we will continue working with private investors and government partners to finalize and put into play much of what is happening.  

I will continue my support of investment efforts with tax agreements where appropriate. The need to support private investment by providing smart and measured short-term tax incentives to projects that promote and promise significant future growth in our tax base is a must.

As I stated last year: we cannot wait for growth — we must court it!

Hospital

Almost three years ago, we all witnessed the tragic closing of the North Adams Regional Hospital. Many — including myself — would have never imagined the resurrection of that campus. With the commitment of Berkshire Health Systems and the help of our state government, we have seen what I consider to be an extensive and sustainable restoration of medical services at the campus of Berkshire Medical Center North.

In addition to the many and full array of services on the campus, cardiac rehabilitation, Berkshire Orthopedic Associates and Northern Berkshire Specialty Practices have all recently opened

  • BHS has invested more than $19 million to restore services since acquiring the facilities
  • A great many jobs have been restored.
  • General outpatient surgery, the relocation of Williamstown Medical of BMC from Ambulatory Care Center to new offices at North Adams campus, Operation Better Start, BHS Community Pharmacy, all things that are happening just this past month.


Schools

With all due credit to the administration, faculty, staff, students, and a thoughtful School Committee, the North Adams Public Schools continue to provide a high-quality educational experience for our kids. Under the leadership of Superintendent Barbara Malkas, our district provides great academic offerings, after-school programming, summer programming, Advanced Placement offerings at the high school, and the most robust arts programs and curriculum in the region.  

This year should be very exciting as the district:

  • Focuses on using research-based instructional improvement strategies, inclusive practices, and data-informed decision making.
  • Strategically focuses resources on early childhood education, specifically improving literacy, high school readiness for increasing the four- and five-year graduation rates, and closing the achievement gap for high-needs subgroups.
  • Continues efforts to work with our community partners in law enforcement and emergency response to provide safe schools that support student learning.
  • The district will submit a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for Greylock School. The district will work on a reconfiguration of grades in the elementary schools and the high school.


Infrastructure

Infrastructure continues to be a long-term problem with no short-term answer. Last year, the City Council approved our Capital Improvement Plan that outlines all capital needs to include buildings, bridges, roads, water and sewer infrastructure, retaining walls, equipment, technology and so much more.

This year, and thanks to support of the City Council and the efforts of staff, we will be moving all public service functions to include: DPW, Parks & Recreation, Cemetery, Wire & Alarm, Building Maintenance, and animal control under one roof and into the former anodizing building on Hodges Cross Road.

We will continue to address small capital projects through the budget and if needed through the appropriation of reserve funds.

To continue to grow our tax base and raise capital for infrastructure and other projects, we will be selling the Windsor Mill, Notre Dame Church and School, Sullivan School, the DPW building and parcel, and the watershed land in Pownal,Vt.  

With the proceeds, I hope to begin the engineering on several of our larger capital projects such as dams, retaining walls and water plant improvements.

As a Complete Streets and Green Communities city, we will embark on projects for both, and during this calendar year
we will be opening our new skate park.

We will continue our efforts on blight. And I assure this city that while there will be programmatic changes — we are not abandoning our public parks.

Public Safety

My administration remains committed to the safety of our residents, our schools and our businesses. With that, I have and will continue my strong support of full-time, fully trained police and fire services for the city. Knowing that we are the smallest city in the commonwealth is in no way an indicator of how we should determine services. Much like any other city, we have wonderful urban assets and also have certain urban challenges that require professional coverage.  

One thing I am very proud of with respect to our first-responders has been their ability and willingness to deal with the very human side of the addiction crisis. Our police and firefighters are trained in the administration of Narcan and two-thirds of our cops have received crisis intervention training. This has helped them more adequately arrest for drug crimes while at the same time, helping families connect with services.

Airport

Since coming into office, I have continually recognized the Harriman and West Airport as one of our most coveted urban assets and anchors.  Many times, we don't even realize it is there but let me tell you — it is there. With great thanks to a very committed and passionate Airport Commission, they have over the past 15 or so years, seen the airport virtually rebuilt. All new ground infrastructure, runway striping and lighting, instrument landing, security fencing. And because of that, the air traffic has increased.

This year we will be working with a FAA grant to purchase a hanger that will boost the airport's revenue. We will continue to work with the state Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division to secure funding that will provide for an administration facility.

I encourage folks to keep any eye to the sky on the airport. I think the over the next 3-5 years this very real economic engine will see it become a true destination.

Branding & Marketing the City

We continue to work on rebranding the city. Working with the Partnership for North Adams, the North Adams Chamber of Commerce and others, we will focus on additional branding efforts to include the banner program, renewing our wayfaring signage, discussions on more public art projects, pop-up retail in the downtown, and hopefully an effort to provide for a new city website.

I am convinced that through the efforts of many that North Adams is now positioned to be "the" place to be in Berkshire County, Western Mass. and New England.  
Things like:

  • The Phase 3 opening of the Mass MoCA expansion in May
  • The presence of the Small Business Revolution
  • The Redwood Motel Project
  • The Greylock Mill Project
  • The Hoosic River Revival
  • The Extreme Model Rail and Contemporary Architecture Museum
  • The UNO Park to be built this spring and summer
  • The possibilities with the bike path
  • Increased real estate sales

We are on the move!!!!

St. Francis Parcel & Park

Since the demolition of St. Francis' Church began, I have been trying very hard to somehow make lemonade out of the lemons. I have been in contact with the Diocese of Springfield and the realtor in charge of the parcel. My plan is to get the diocese to deed the "footprint" of the church — not the entire parcel — to the city with the intent of making that space into a memorial park of sorts. Using certain artifacts, the site could be turned into a beautiful religious and historic remembrance of our past. The park would abut our Colegrove Park and have magnificent views to the north and west and would be looking directly at our Veterans Memorial.  

And while so much has happened and there is so much more to come.

I certainly have some disappointments:

The Mohawk Theater still sits vacant and without any immediate prospect. My hopes of partnerships with educational and cultural venues have not yet come to fruition. I am hopeful, however, that as development continues across many areas of the city, the Mohawk will find its rebirth.

We struggle with the final outcome of the North Adams Armory. While it is still programmed for youth basketball and a host of other activities, we continue to work to find the right recipe to contain the "Community Center" concept we envision. It needs to benefit the community, most specifically our kids, our seniors and our veterans. We will continue to work with partners to make that happen.

A very special shout out to our city councilors who are involved and committed in ways like never before:

  • Driving the North Adams Exchange and the Small Business Revolution
  • Representing this city at the state level as the president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association
  • Singlehandedly bringing us an Appalachian Trail Community designation and working tirelessly on bike path efforts
  • Working to assure the growth and utilization of Windsor Lake and Historic Valley Campground
  • Formulating ideas and working with other communities on how we can expand broadband
  • And so much more ...

At an event several weeks ago, I heard Mayor Linda Tyer refer to Pittsfield as the "capital city of the Berkshires." While I love our friends to the south, and while it is the biggest city in this glorious western region, I am not convinced they can lay claim to that status.

The North Adams treasure trove of cultural and recreational assets is second to none. Our exceptional urban assets such as Mass MoCA, the largest museum of contemporary arts in the country; MCLA, a top 10-rated public liberal arts university; BMC North with their significant and still emerging health-care services; the Harriman and West Airport; significant investment happening and in the works; real estate selling at or above assessments; our unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in 15 years; festivals and joy in our streets; and don't let anybody tell you that we do not have good schools!

As a greater North Adams and as the best little city in the commonwealth, I never want us to be known as the "other city" in Berkshire County.

Like very many folks in this city, I have been here my entire life. I have many friends who own homes and many friends in public housing, I have friends who eat out every week and friends who visit the food shelter every week, I have friends who are right on course with their lives and friends who struggle with mental health and addiction issues.

I am just old enough to vividly remember the days of the mills, the days of a bustling downtown, the days when 20,000 people lived here. I have worked in the downtown for the past 44 years, I have lived the ups and downs of the Main Street corridor — of seeing hundreds and hundreds of people on the streets — and I am now living with the promise and hope of all that is happening, of what is being seen by those coming into our community with fresh eyes. I am feasting off the good that I see and hear from many who know that we have work to do but think that North Adams is a really good place.

During one of his last speeches a month or so ago, former President Obama re-stated the theme of his initial campaign by loudly and proudly proclaiming "Yes we can." Through my campaigns, I have always reiterated "Together we can." We have a great core of folks who have committed or re-committed themselves to the success of North Adams and I thank those people. We have many more people "pulling the rope" than we had seven years ago.  

In seven years, we have given this city to the people who live here, people who invest here, ideas and adventures are flowing.

This was so visible as so many people came together under the promise of the Small Business Revolution. With the Revolution, we saw the excitement in our community grow, the vision, hope and promise that I saw on the faces of so many during this experience. And while we didn't win the prize, this city won big in so many other ways. So many people simply wanting to see North Adams grow.

I have now become totally convinced that with the infusion of people, the inclusion of ideas and the will to get things done — no one will hold back the renaissance of the city of North Adams.

To all the good people of the city of North Adams, I am very pleased to say ...

  • that our city is not vulnerable but rather it is valuable
  • that our city is not desperate but rather it is desirable
  • that our city is not poor but rather it is rich — rich in its history, rich in its environment, rich in its amenities, and rich in the people who now define who we are and who we will become.

This city has so much potential, so many folks pulling the rope, so many people investing, buying homes, moving here because there is so much good here. Folks who have become the driving force behind so many good things. They are our hope, they are the opportunity, they are our future, they are my inspiration, and they are the ones stomping us out of the years of "woe is me" and proudly marching us into the day of "look at me."
 
God bless you all, God bless this wonderful Country, our commonwealth and the city of North Adams.
 

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