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Town Spotlights

August 7, 2017

North Adams, Massachusetts: A Creative Economy Emerges from an Industrial Past

After receiving 14,000 nominations for towns to put in the spotlight during season two of “Small Business Revolution,” we hit the road to visit eight inspiring towns that made our short list of potential finalists. Throughout summer, we’re looking back and sharing the stories of what made each town special – including guest posts from local leaders and some profiles of businesses in these communities. This is the first post in our weeklong focus on North Adams, Massachusetts.

Like so many of America’s most inspiring small towns, North Adams, Massachusetts, is deceptively unassuming.

Sure, it’s enveloped by breathtaking New England scenery, including spectacular fall foliage that attracts awe-inspired tourists to the region each autumn. But as you stroll along historic Main Street in this peaceful town of 13,000, you might not even realize that North Adams is also home to a flourishing art scene, including the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art – or “MASS MoCA,” for those in the know.

MASS MoCA is not only one of the largest contemporary arts museums in the entire country, but it also hosts hugely popular events, including festivals featuring famous musicians like Wilco, which draw hordes of arts and music fans to North Adams each year.

However, North Adams wasn’t always home to a massive art museum. In fact, it is a post-industrial town with a common story: a major electrical mill closed and left countless people without work, completely upending the local economy. But North Adams refused to give up and instead embraced its increasingly vibrant local arts community, which is now at the core of its modern identity. In fact, MASS MoCA’s 19 galleries occupy a converted factory building.

Many small businesses are also finding ways to refresh historic spaces: For example, Bright Ideas Brewing took over a nearby factory building and is serving up innovative craft beers to thirsty North Adams residents and tourists alike.

What’s especially impressive is the way that North Adams has found ways to merge its small business and arts communities into what many local leaders refer to as the “creative economy.” For instance, the local “Makers’ Mill” is a collaborative space in which creative entrepreneurs are building a small business community around their shared passion for handcrafted products.

Of course, many longstanding small businesses that pre-date North Adams’ modern arts movement are also critical to the vibrant community. Case in point: Jack’s Hot Dog Stand, a counter-service joint that has been doling out famous hot dogs, burgers, fries and other delicious food to eager fans for a century. (Warning: You’ll want to order one of everything at this family-run gem.)

One of North Adams’ biggest challenges today is finding creative ways to encourage the music and arts fans at MASS MoCA to stroll over to Eagle Street and Main Street, to experience all the amazing small businesses that downtown North Adams has to offer. Too many people swing in and out of town without ever exploring the cavernous Berkshire Emporium, or buying birthday gifts at Persnickety Toys, or enjoying a cup of coffee and a conversation at Brewhaha. And those are just a few examples of the many amazing small businesses in the heart of downtown.

Luckily, North Adams is home to many passionate and driven small business owners, town leaders and residents, who are determined to continue building the local economy and leveraging all the attributes that make the community special. One visible example is the historic Mohawk Theater in the heart of downtown, which is undergoing a massive renovation, and whose bright marquee welcomes people to North Adams’ remarkable downtown.

Next time you find yourself in New England, don’t miss North Adams – and be sure to take in all that the town’s unique creative economy and other small businesses have to offer.

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