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LEGENDARY MAYOR FACES TOUGHEST CHALLENGE YET

Published in the Bennington Banner, Oct. 26, 2009 
 
MARK E. RONDEAU
Staff Writer
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Geographically, this city in Northern Berkshire County is much closer to Bennington than is Rutland or Brattleboro and about the same distance away as Manchester.

Politically, however, the distance is much greater. North Adams is not only in another state, but it has a strong mayor, weak city council form of government, far from the governing team of equals on a town select board.

With 15 candidates for nine city council seats, in addition to a hotly contested mayoral race, hundreds of candidate signs dot yards and roadsides across North Adams, a community of about 14,000. The candidates have one more week to make their case before the Nov. 3 election.

Mayor John Barrett III is seeking his 14th two-year term in the corner office in City Hall on Main Street. The son of a boxer-turned restaurant owner, Barrett, 62, is facing arguably his toughest opponent yet, City Council member Richard “Dick” Alcombright.

Alcombright, 55, is a local bank senior vice president and longtime member of the McCann Regional Technical High School board. His late father, Daniel “Danny” Alcombright, routinely received the most votes of any candidate in city council elections.

In North Adams, the office of mayor is a full-time, salaried position.

A mayor cannnot continue to be re-elected for a quarter century without some things getting done. Barrett supporters can point to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a restored library, a renovated high school, athletic fields and playgrounds, new downtown infrastructure and other improvements over the years.

A Barrett campaign mailing to North Adams residents last week had the word “Results” in huge letters on one side, along with the phrase “proven leadership.” The other side features a photo of the mayor with U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry on Main Street.

A woman helping staff Barrett’s headquarters on Ashland Street Friday said that when she and her husband moved to the city decades ago, her neighbor wanted to start a business.

“He was told by his realtor, ‘Have your business in North Adams. Buy your home in Williamstown,’ Now the reverse is true,” the woman said. “People are coming here to buy their homes.”

Like most everywhere else, however, North Adams is suffering from the recession. Some 10 years after it opened, MASS MoCA has raised the city’s profile, boosted its image and brings 150,000 tourists to town every year. Still, pockets of poverty mark the city and several downtown storefronts are still vacant — including the two storefronts temporarily serving as Alcombright and Barrett headquarters.

In addition, Barrett’s pugnacious leadership style has become a focal point in the race.

An Alcombright campaign mailing to city residents last week declared that “Together We Will Succeed.” Inside, Alcombright says his door will always be open and that he has “the confidence to disagree without disrespect” and “a talent for building and strengthening relationships.”

During a visit to Alcombright’s headquarters on Eagle Street Friday, the five people present spoke of wanting a mayor who was not hostile toward those who oppose him, one who would bring in more open, inclusive and transparent city government.

Barrett, interviewed in his office on Wednesday, said that Alcombright has run “a very superficial campaign.”

“His campaign has been built around a lot of visibility and things like that, but really no solutions.”

Barrett said his opponent wants to run the city by committee. A  mayor may take ideas from people in all walks of life — such as he did with the idea for a contemporary art museum in the old Sprague Electric Co. mill — “but it’s the mayor that has to be the person who gets it done.”

Barrett noted that the recession has cut tax revenues available to cities and towns.

“You really have to have someone there with some experience. And that was a driving reason why I decided to run again is that I thought the city could use my experience,” he said. “All the gains we have made could really go backwards. That’s my feeling.”

The connections he has built up over the years in the state and federal government will help the city get stimulus funds, he added.

Barrett said that in his time in office the city’s economy has transformed. The first several years he was mayor the unemployment rate was always much higher than the national rate. Today, at 9.5 percent, it is below the national rate, he said.

The industrial employers that were still in the city and area and employed thousands in his first years as mayor have left, but with a labor force of the same size, more people are now employed — and in different kinds of jobs, he said.

“We have a new economy out there, made up of many small businesses. Are they impacted by the downturn? Of course they are.”

“We have turned the corner, but that doen’t mean the journey’s over with. The journey has a long way to go,” Barrett said. “And I would fully expect that we’re going to see some real growth in private sector investment in the next few years in North Adams.”

Alcombright, also interviewed on Wednesday, during a lunchtime visit to his campaign headquarters, said that looking around over the last few years he has seen the poor getting poorer, a shrinking middle class, decreasing population, rising crime and a lack of true job development.

These are some of the things that spurred him to run. “There hasn’t in my mind been a true economic development effort here in years,” he said.

Alcombright said he wants more regional efforts for development. Now, with an absence of funds for other than shovel-ready stimulus projects, it’s time to think about economic initiatives.

“We have a community now that people are trying to come out of the woodwork and put their ideas forward,” he said. “And we just want to create a more inclusive and transparent environment to allow them to do that.”

He is fully prepared to make the kind of tough decisions a mayor needs to make, but still sees room for much more collaboration, he said.

“You have a lot of people here who are very smart people with respect to economic development, with respect to green initiatives, with respect to art, culture and diversity,” he said. “So I think we have a lot going for us if we get those people together to foster some ideas.”

As for the connections needed to get things done, any community in the U.S. with shovel-ready project can receive stimulus money. Alcombright said he knows many local officials from his 11 years as chairman of the McCann Finance Committee, has good relationships with local state legislators, and in his business career “that’s my job, creating relationships and driving relationships.”

Alcombright said he has known Barrett for 40 years and the race is not about personalities. “This is strictly about philosophy at this point, what I think I can bring to the table.”

While he would thank Barrett for all he has done in his 26 years as mayor, “We’re moving forward now, and I think we need to be in a different place”
 
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Richard "Dick" Alcombright at his campaign headquarters on Eagle Street. (Photos by Mark E. Rondeau)
 
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Mayor John Barrett III in his office in City Hall.