NewsNORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It was a long, cold walk down Main Street for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on Wednesday. But the frigid temperatures were offset by some warm welcomes and concluded with some hot dogs at the legendary Jack's.
The Democratic congressman has been taking some time in the Berkshires during the House recess to get to know the region that will soon include the Springfield area he's represented since 1988.
"The consolidation of Western Massachusetts is not a bad thing, it's a good thing," said Neal, who will run this year for the newly redrawn 1st Massachusetts District in hopes of replacing U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, who is retiring. "I can assure people that I will vigorously represent the interests of the Berkshires with the same enthusiasm that I represent [the 2nd District]."
Escorted by Mayor Richard Alcombright, council President Michael Bloom and longtime friend and Fairview Hospital President Eugene Dellea, Neal was introduced to shopkeepers and artists along Main and Eagle streets and got a look at the stripped-down Mohawk Theater.
The congressman said he's been struck by the beauty of the Berkshires and the forward thinking and creativity he's found, including in North Adams.
"I think cities, throughout American history, remake themselves based upon the resources available," said the former Springfield mayor. "I've witnessed in the conversation the mayor has had with me today this whole notion we're in control of our own destiny ... at the same time acknowledging the role that the government can play and has played in terms of infrastructure."
Alcombright said he wanted the congressman to understand the city's plan for the historic theater in partnering with Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to make it a classroom and downtown destination.
"We really wanted you to see this to get a picture in your mind of what we're trying to do and how maybe we find support at other levels other than where we're looking," he said, as the group stood in the empty theater with MCLA Vice President James Stakenas and Jonathan Secor of the college's Berkshire Cultural Resource Center.
Secor and Alcombright promoted the sustainability of the idea since the theater would not be dependent on a constant stream of theatergoers for revenue, like the Colonial in Pittsfield. "It's something that doesn't
need 1,100 people four times a week coming to it," said Secor. "Because in a town of 13,000, the numbers just don't work."
MCLA already has a fine and performing arts department in place, said the mayor. "They have the arts management program, they have a marketing program; all the things are in place that would certainly make this viable."
Neal pointed to the New Market Tax Credits program he authored a decade ago that was used by the Colonial Theater to the tune of $17.5 million.
"They have created $50 billion in investment across the country and that revenue is recaptured because the owner starts paying property taxes, paying utility bills ... so the money comes back to the federal Treasury," he said, describing the program he's working to get reauthorized as a "handsome tool" for projects that spurs ancillary benefits.
The congressman said he was cognizant of the difficulties faced by small and mid-sized cities and in the potential of the arts. MCLA instructor Melanie Mowinski at the Press Gallery on Main Street told Neal how her gallery filled empty space on Main Street and brought arts lovers and students alike to the downtown.
Neal agreed that the creative economy can be valuable resource for driving pedestrian traffic.
"What the arts have done for Northampton over the last 30 years is wild," he said, "This not only great artwork and expression but he number of people it attracts."
Neal also visited a Berkshire Community College site in downtown Pittsfield in the morning and was headed for a meeting with MCLA's Mary Grant. He was to attend a dinner with local Democrats at the Williams Inn on Wednesday evening.