'We Need An Infusion Of New Young People,' An Outgoing Mayor Reflects

Dec 27, 2017

The new year brings new mayors to three cities in western Massachusetts: Agawam, Easthampton and North Adams. In North Adams, Tom Bernard will replace Dick Alcombright, who decided not to run for re-election after eight years in office.

I sat down with Alcombright to find out what he saw as his main accomplishments while mayor of Berkshire County's second-largest community.

Dick Alcombright: One of the things we said we wanted to do is open up government in the city in North Adams. We wanted a more participatory realm here, and we wanted people to feel welcome and invited into their government to participate.

The other thing was to broaden what our boards and commissions look like from a diversity perspective, and to certainly invite more women, younger people onto those things. I think we've really changed the face of what government looks like and acts like in the city of North Adams.  

I'm certainly not throwing a stone when I say that, but what I'm saying is it needed to be different. It was time for it to be different. I think we've done that, and I think that's proven by the numbers of people who are now stepping up and wanting to lead.

Adam Frenier, NEPR: Tom Bernard will be the third mayor since the mid-1980s. What's that say about this community?

First of all, I think John Barrett came in and created a wealth of stability for a lot of people politically here in the city, and certainly was a necessary component of where we were coming from, say in the early '80s.

My vision eight years ago was to build on that, and the sense of opening the government back up, getting our finances back into shape. And I think we've done a good job with that. I certainly think Tom is that next level.

Tom is a very intellectual guy. I think he and I have similar personalities. I think he's a little more serious than I am at times. But I think Tom is ready to take the city where it is today, and infuse his own vision and his own dreams, and make it look like he wants it to look.

"Having the bond rating go from the A-minus with a negative outlook to an A-stable was something -- I really want a t-shirt or a hat to reflect that. That, quite honestly, is one of my proudest moments."
Dick Alcombright
Main Street in North Adams, Massachusetts, in 2013.
Credit Joe Mabel / flickr.com/photos/jmabel / Creative Commons

You mentioned the city's finances. In 2014, the State House News Service quoted you as telling state officials, "We're broke. We're one cycle away from Detroit." Earlier this year, Standard and Poor's upgraded the city's bond rating, which certainly can be seen as a sign of stability. What was the reason for the turnaround?

From the bank geek perspective in me, having the bond rating go from the A-minus with a negative outlook to an A-stable was something -- I really want a t-shirt or a hat to reflect that. That, quite honestly, is one of my proudest moments.

We just, we dug in from 2010, when I came in until today, we've dug in. We've managed our budget. Our budgets have grown virtually runs just about 1.1 percent year over year, which is virtually flat-lined. And when I started, at that time in 2014, we had at best a couple hundred-thousand dollars in reserves. Today, we have about $2.2 million in reserves. Again, we've flat-lined and balanced budgets without use of reserves. So we've done a good job of turning that around.

And the message I sent at the time with the state was that we needed an infusion of cash. And I asked for a lot. They gave me enough. They gave us $750,000 to fund some capital projects that we would not have been able to do without that. When I went, quite honestly, I was desperate, and desperate people make desperate statements at times. But it's worked out.

Also in 2014, North Adams Regional Hospital closed. Has the city recovered from that, both in terms of getting health care -- there are some outpatient services there -- and also the job loss that that was experienced?

I think much of the job loss -- and Berkshire Health System has more accurate numbers on this -- but our campus up there now is really fully involved. We have more medical services there today than we did when North Adams Regional closed.

What's missing in this, to the chagrin of some folks, is that we still don't have inpatient beds. But then again, that's something that Berkshire Health Systems will look at over time, and see if there's a categorical need for that.

If you look at Berkshire County, there's been a population drop. There have been schools with fewer students. How do you see that affecting North Adams going forward?

The student population is reflective of the overall population declines, and I do think that -- my own opinion -- education is the next largest financial problem that our communities will face here in Berkshire County.

If you look at northern Berkshire, we're geographically the size of Springfield with about a third the people. We have seven distinct school districts. The true reality is if you build it today, you'd never build it that way.

I'm very happy that our educational task force is taking looks at these things. I don't know that I'm 100 percent on board with some of the solutions they brought forward. But guess what? They're looking at it.

"We need to replace the seniors that have either left and become snowbirds, or unfortunately aren't with us anymore, and find a way to combat that aging population situation, and bring in new, young people."
Dick Alcombright

The Mohawk Theater in North Adams, Massachusetts, in 2013.
Credit Joe Mabel / flickr.com/photos/jmabel / Creative Commons

How about from the city side of things? The population's getting older also, with the population going down. Certainly, that hurts the tax base. How is it affecting the city operational side of things?

Again, we have to look at that, and this is why our budget growth has been so stagnated over the last eight years, because we have been looking at that.

We've done a lot of departmental consolidations. We've done a lot of not rehiring people back.

I think the only place we've seen any growth in capacity and in staffing has been our police department, which -- again, urban issues -- that's why we've needed to do that, and that people accept that.

But our school system is still strong. Our numbers are staying fairly consistent, and our population numbers are staying fairly consistent. But you're right: we need an infusion of new young people.

We need to replace the seniors that have either left and become snowbirds, or unfortunately aren't with us anymore, and find a way to combat that aging population situation, and bring in new, young people. With that, I mean a lot, obviously, a lot of that is jobs and opportunity.

As you look back at your eight years here in the corner office, do you have one thing that you regret, or one thing that you wish you had done a little differently? 

I don't know that it's a regret or handled differently, except classified as two disappointments. Number one is the Mohawk Theater. I won't say I failed miserably at that. But the thought that I had, and what we tried to work with, making that a collaborative kind of a project with MCLA, just certainly didn't pan out. I wish Tom a whole lot of success.

I think the Mohawk Theater has a bright future. What that is, is quite honestly, is anybody's guess.

The other thing that, you know, I don't think we've addressed well here: blight is probably the bad word. I think our housing challenge is more global in the city of North Adams. We were built to house 22,000 or 23,000 people, much of it multifamily, much of it very close, and much of it getting very old, and much of it in decay. We don't have the population to support that anymore.

So how do we look at our housing issues more globally, and work towards addressing blight, but also addressing housing in general here?

So what's next for Dick Alcombright?

I'm very happy to say I'm going back home, and for those people who might know me, I worked with North Adams-Hoosac Savings Bank. I started my career in 1973, to Hoosac Savings Bank, to Hoosac Bank, and then obviously now the Mountain One affiliation. I spoke to those folks in June, and I'm very happy to say that I'm going back home.

It was a wonderful relationship. It was a wonderful place to work. It wasn't one day that I went to work thinking, "Today's the last day," or, "I'm going to lose my job," or, "There's going to be layoffs."

I had so many friends in the factories, in the mills and just this area, who had to leave here, who had to go from one job to the next. So I have a tremendous amount of loyalty, and I’m very pleased that they are going to welcome me home, so to speak.