The upbeat impact from DownStreet Art

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NORTH ADAMS —
North Adams' arts and culture scene has become so well known that it has changed the way many people view the Steeple City.

Naturally, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is the indisputable 800 pound arts gorilla in town, which gets most of the credit — and deservedly so — for pulling the city back from the brink. However, DownStreet Art, a smaller less well known arts organization, is also a big part of the reason that the city's downtown is back on the map economically.

Between 2008 and 2016, 150,000 people visited a DownStreet Art gallery or program, according to Michelle Daly, the director of the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center, a program of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. BCRC provides professional development training, resources, and support to the artists, art managers, and creative workers of Berkshire County.

A recent survey showed that 63 percent of those who visit DownStreet's offerings, which take place on the last Thursday of the month throughout the summer, spend money in downtown North Adams during them, according to Daly. Restaurants especially see a boost. Citing anecdotal evidence, Daly said downtown eateries experience a 20 to 30 percent increase in sales on event nights at DownStreet Art.

"DownStreet Art impacts our downtown businesses in two main areas," Daly said. "First, we bring hundreds of visitors to Main Street every month, and the majority of those visitors are shopping and eating in local restaurants. Second, murals and other artworks beautify and enliven our downtown core, driving foot traffic and extending the amount of time someone wants to spend downtown."

Jared Decoteau, the owner of Public eat+drink on Holden Street, thinks Daly's estimate regarding increased traffic in local restaurants is "definitely in the ballpark", especially during DownStreet's first event of the season, which takes place in June before the onslaught of summer tourists arrive.

Based on his calculations, Williams College Economics Professor Stephen Sheppard believes DownStreet Art has become a valued economic resource.

"Spending patterns observed from recent surveys of other visitors to Berkshire County indicate that every 1,000 day visitors generate about $70,000 in local economic activity, supporting 1.16 jobs and generating about $26,500 in employee wages," noted Sheppard. An urban development specialist, Sheppard also directs the Center for Creative Development, a Williams College research center that examines the social impacts of arts and cultural communities across the United States.

Plug Daly's figures into Sheppard's formula:: Since DownStreet was established in 2008 its events have generated $10.5 million for the city, supporting 174 jobs, and creating approximately $3,975,000 in wages.

Located at MCLA Gallery 51 at 51 Main St., DownStreet was founded nine years ago in partnership with the city of North Adams, Mass MoCA, Scarafoni Realty (now CT Management Group) and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. The Massachusetts Cultural Council is also a founding member. It started as a four month-series of storefront art installations and art destinations in downtown North Adams that were formulated under the guidance of then BCRC Director Jonathan Secor in conjunction with the organization's partners.

DownStreet's mission is "to build economic and social capital, and encourage the dialogue between our community and the arts by enlivening downtown North Adams, using art and cultural activities to increase visitorship and enhance resident participation," according to its website.

DSA brings that mission to life each summer from late June through September by hosting a broad range of events in downtown North Adams. They include exhibitions, video screenings, performance art, and site-specific pop-up installations as well as murals, which often remain in place after the season is over.

"DSA has played a significant role in boosting the city's reputation as a cultural destination, creating cultural programming that extends beyond the walls of Mass MoCA, and putting the downtown in an excellent position to receive a cultural district designation from the MCC," said Suzy Helme, the city's director of community events.

The Mass Cultural Council is expected to make a final decision on whether to make DownStreet Art a cultural district this month.

North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright is also a big supporter of DownStreet Art.

"As a lifelong resident of the city, I am certain I speak for many when I say the last 30 years have been difficult," Alcombright said. "The collapse of our economy in the 80's with the loss of manufacturing left this city and region with the daunting task of rebuilding our economy and finding ways to keep folks engaged. The arts economy has been a wonderful piece of our transition and growth as a community, and we are very thankful for that.

"MCLA has been a very important and consistent partner with respect to this growth in so many ways......most specifically with their infusion of DSA and their presence on Main Street and in the community," Alcombright said. "DSA has brought visitors to the downtown who might not have come otherwise. Most importantly, it has given residents the ability to come to know, understand and thus engage with the arts, and experience how important they are to our resurgence and what a great partner we have in MCLA."

"This is one of the ways that MCLA contributes to the economic vitality of North Adams, and something in which we take great pride," said MCLA President James Birge.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, saw how DownStreet Art affected the downtown area's economic fortunes when he served as the director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

"We have seen arts and culture revitalize our downtowns throughout the region and, as a result, the state finds significant value in investing in the local individuals and institutions that continue to drive that positive energy," Hinds said.

EXPANSION PLANS

City Councilor Keith Bona owns Berkshire Emporium and Antiques, which occupies over 10,000 square feet on Main Street and is still looking to expand.

To some extent, DownStreet Art has become a victim of its own success because now there are fewer vacant downtown storefronts that it can use for pop-up art spaces during the summer, Bona said. But "less empty storefronts is a good problem," he added.

"What we do know is that when DownStreet Art started there was a significantly higher vacancy rate in the downtown," Daly said. "In the decade that this program has been in place, we've seen that number ebb and flow, but overall decrease by a significant amount."

"Clearly on the evenings of the season there is a substantial amount of increased foot traffic," Bona said. "More on the street, equals more in the door. It's a simple equation that can't hurt."

There are growing indications that this increase in foot traffic is carrying over into the off-season.

At least two of the new businesses downtown — outside gallery and Gravity Gallery — which both opened in the last year, have direct ties to DownStreet Art. The former grew from a business incubation program created by DSA. Gravity co-founders and owners Lynn Circus and Paul McMullan had a pop-up gallery in DownStreet's 2012 festival, a key factor in their choice to establish a more permanent presence in the city.

"When we started looking for a space, we knew one option would be North Adams, as there was already a built-in arts community," Circus said. "We did not feel like we would have to explain to the public why we choose the work we do. We can install all types of video, painting, installation and kinetic projects without a conservative push back. We are still getting our feet wet and figuring out how many shows to mount each year, etc., but are excited about the future and hope to continue cycling exhibitions all year."

A sculpture professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where she still lives, Circus came to the New England area from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. McMullan, a ceramics professor at Keene State, relocated from Ann Arbor, Mich. He recently decided to make North Adams his home.

With the arrival of Gravity and other new galleries and businesses, and the push provided by DownStreet and its founding partners, downtown North Adams is fast approaching a critical mass, creating its own gravity which, in turn, seems to be attracting others.

Downtown storefronts are filling up not only during the four months of DownStreet's concentrated summer programming, but during the other eight months as well. It's not surprising that the perception of North Adams has begun to change.

Avi Dresner can be reached at Adresner@nycap.rr.com.


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