For towns that haven’t experienced it, here’s what it looks like: A major employer packs up and leaves. Unemployment soar. Tax receipts plummet. Local businesses shutter, and culture and civic pride vaporize. Some towns reinvent themselves with new industries. Some places never bounce back. It’s a cruel Darwinian selection, but its long tail is still evident in thousands of small towns and cities east of the Mississippi.
The towns that try to revitalize themselves as travel hotspots have an even bigger challenge. How do you re-invent yourself as a chic, new destination when you’re competing with places that have been attracting vacationers for generations?
You play to your strengths. The combination of adaptive re-use and historic preservation is the ultimate recycle and re-use success story, and not surprisingly the media loves it because it’s about sustainability. Saving a historic building isn’t that much different then restoring a natural habitat. You use what’s already working.
When we learned more about Nancy Fitzpatrick, the owner and founder of the Main Street Hospitality Group, and how her entrepreneurial spirit has contributed to the rebirth of a place that had taken a turn for the worse we felt compelled to give her a proverbial “atta girl”. In our opinion she is living and breathing the historic lifestyle to the fullest.
It all started back in 1999 when Nancy became an enthusiastic supporter of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), an adaptive-reuse project that now houses one of the largest and liveliest epicenters of contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States in North Adams, Massachusetts. Before MASS MoCA existed, North Adams was far from what anyone would consider an attractive vacation destination. Dilapidated factories loomed over the town and crime rates were some of the highest in the state.
The first catalyst of change was the opening of MASS MoCA.
In 1986, a few employees of the nearby Williams College Museum of Art were searching for a large factory or mill to display some of the larger pieces of art that did not fit in their typical museum/gallery space. The mayor of North Adams suggested that they look at the former Sprague Electric Factory, who up until recently had been the town’s largest employer that created a self sufficient community with its own school, day care center, orchestra, a cooperative grocery store and sports teams. When it closed down in 1985, North Adams was left on a path of decline—again. After several years of fundraising, the project evolved from simply being a place to exhibit art to creating a destination-driven performing arts center. The project ended up being funded in part from the state of Massachusetts, which provided 19 millions dollars after a private/public coalition petitioned the state to support the project.
Located in a former 19th century historic textile mill and retaining many of its original architectural elements, the 13-acre, 27-building structure is now home to the largest contemporary art museum in the country. MASS MoCA opened its doors in 1999 with nineteen galleries and 100,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Here’s where the story gets even better since when one good thing happens in historic preservation equally good things often follow. Across the street from MASS MoCA stood a block of deteriorated Victorian row houses where Nancy saw yet another opportunity. Every month interning students, small galleries looking for satellite space, visiting artists in residencies, and museum visitors in general were looking for accommodations more local and befitting of their authentic art experience vs. an out-of-town chain motel. So why not renovate these incredible historic properties into a boutique, art-driven inn that would attract visitors coming to see MASS MoCA? From that void in the marketplace coupled with Nancy’s vision and a partnership with Berkshire Hills Development came the birth of The Porches Inn at MASS MoCA, which opened its doors in 2001.
The Porches Inn offers its guests a design aesthetic that mixes a hipster vibe with modern design elements while featuring historic architectural details throughout. This was not Nancy’s first foray into the hospitality industry. She is a second-generation hotelier and her family has owned the Red Lion Inn (another historic inn that is part of the Main Street Hospitality Group’s portfolio of inns) since 1968 in addition to owning The Williams Inn and Hotel on North.
We love revitalization success stories and rooting for the underdog, and North Adams now offers residents and visitors a thriving arts and foodie scene, locally owned retail shops and a vibrant indie rock scene all nestled in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains.
Sounds like the perfect place to park our Airstream for a few weeks this fall.