A sweeping theme-park-for-art vision of an economic and cultural transformation of the Greylock region – 2,000 spinoff jobs and up to $180 million annually added to the economy, and tax-breaks for investors — was detailed for the first time in a public forum on Sunday by art entrepreneur Thomas L. Krens.
Krens spoke to a full-house audience at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., in the final of four lectures since fall about his career from Williams College professor to head of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and years helping create large-scale museum projects worldwide.
Listen to audio of Krens’ talk:F
The Williamstown resident’s latest project is the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (EMRCA), an idea now projected to transform downtown North Adams. While many details Krens discussed have been dribbled out in previous announcements and private newsletters, the talk was the first to knit together Krens’ overall vision.
One key point: The project may be driven by investor money as a for-profit venture with the enticement of a provision of 2017 federal tax-code revisions spurred by President Trump designed to spur business development in the nation’s poverty zones. All of the EMRCA development would now be in two such zones designated last year by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Under the law, an investor seeking to shelter capital gains when selling a current investment, can invest within 180 days into an Opportunity Zone fund that would in turn invest in EMRCA. The result — deferred taxes on those gains until the end of 2026, as well a partial adjustment in their tax basis. The idea is create an incentive for people with large investment profits to make money helping low-income communities by giving the investor a tax break.
In the Q-and-A after his talk, Krens announced that the project has a website: http://emrca.com and he said — to the whole audience — that one could put in the password “emrca” to access it — “until we change the password.” Once on the site, there are links to a lot of documentation. U.S. securities laws prohibit public offering of risky investments to non-wealthy individuals.
The 2,000 jobs and $180-million impact come from a study and projections developed for Krens’ group by Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard. Costs of the project and relationships between public and private investment are still in play, Krens said after his talk. Current plans envision about $28 million in private investment and perhaps another $10 million from other sources for the museum components.
Deal to raze shopping center?
The most important disclosure in Krens’ talk was an obvious pivot of the project away from its initial vision as a total remake of North Adams Heritage State Park combined with a cavernous art gallery near the North Adams Harriman and West Airport, near Williamstown.
The new concept concentrates major construction in the center of North Adams, potentially replacing a giant parking lot to the south of Main Street – a vestige of 1960s urban renewal – with a grassy square dubbed, “Central Park Commons”, surrounded by museum facilities and a new luxury hotel. Also replaced would be a commercial building current housing a movie theater and other retailers. Asked post-talk if his group has an option to acquire the private property, Krens replied: “I’m under an NDA, I can’t comment.”
MassMoCA, an idea Krens originated in 1985, has not transformed North Adams as fully as planners hoped, he said. Hence the title of his Clark talk: “Unfinished Business: The EMRCA and the Diseases of Despair.” But an expansive, full-of-motion, destination museum project — built economically as a investor-owned for-profit enterprise, and combining elements of both high and mass culture . . . at once both theme park and museum . . . has the potential to continue that process, he believes.
“MassMoCA’s not had the economic impact that we projected,” said Krens, even as it has been an incredible success critically. “The unfinished business here is how do you get more people to come?”
The answer, says Krens, is in the melding of the concepts of museum and theme park, an evolution of the art-museum culture, with impeccable aesthetics, maximum impact and minimal capital cost. He called it “a museum-theme-park experience that appeals to all ages,” with the goal of making the Greylock region the No. 1 cultural destination in the United States.
Krens cited A. Gray Ellrodt, M.D., a Berkshire Medical Center internist who serves on the museum’s planning and finance committee, as saying the museum’s economic and other impacts will have a greater positive effect on public health – “the diseases of despair” — than pure medical research.
“People will flock here to northwestern Massachusetts,” Krens said. “And it will attack what Dr. Ellrodt calls those diseases of despair.”
Krens predicted that with Sunday’s talk, the EMRCA project would now enter a more public phase, with more frequent disclosures and updates. Last week organizers announced they had leased space in a downtown North Adams vacant retail space for a project planning office.
“I think from now on we’re going to be kind of a little more public about what we’re doing and a bunch of strategies that will be evident sooner,” Krens said. “I don’t want to anticipate those. But I think we’re going to begin to look for national press and brings to the attention of, I think, all the people around the world who will be interested in this.”
Krens’ planners are working toward a July release of a private-placement memorandum for circulation to qualified investors. For the next six months, they are relying on resources provided by planning funds from the state as well as loans for approximately 24 private investors to continue planning and develop a feasibility plan likely running as long as 1,000 pages. These early investors have loaned the project money on note terms which will allow them preferential pricing when a legal investment offering is made.
In his talk, Krens outlined elements of the project:
- The train-and-architecture museum, would comprise an 80,000-to-90,000-square foot, long, narrow, sleek, zinc-façade building shaped like the front of a bullet train. Inside would be intricate, high-tech-designed and built replicas of 1,200 iconic worldwide architectural landmarks, each scaled to 1/48th of their actual size. Running amid the replica buildings would be 107 miniature “O-scale” trains on 9.5-miles of track – 12 separate lines guided from a high-tech control room. As of last week, it would be located on an 11-acre parcel once owned by the Sons of Italy.
- Heritage Park would still be home to a Massachusetts Museum of Time – a private collection of some 96 industrial clocks, some more than a century old and some room-sized.
- A 110-room luxury hotel, spa and wellness center on Main Street with a 1,500-square-foot, open-air rooftop venue. Economic projections suggest the hotel could run at a profit at 61-percent occupancy after three years assuming an average room night charge of $348, Krens said.
- A for-profit Global Contemporary Art Museum – the component that was to have been near the airport – would now be located in a new building around the new City Common Square. Some drawings also show a building housing a museum of motorcycles.
- A restoration of the long-shuttered Mohawk Theater to be designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Said Krens: “Low capital costs . . . no permanent seats . . . but impeccable acoustics.” The single-screen movie theater, opened in 1938, once had 1,200 floor-mounted seats.
- Two immersive, 3D video theaters to be designed to utilize technology pioneered by Hollywood special-effects and digital-animation pioneer Douglas Trumbull, who once had a design studio in Housatonic.
- A parking garage with open sides which could double in warm weather as a multi-story evening event space.
Not your childhood train set
Krens took pains to describe the train and architecture museum as much more than an elaborate childhood train set. He said it would be built using cutting-edge augmented reality, 3D printing and digital laser cutting of materials. Scenic backgrounds for the architecture and train layouts will consist of 1,200-foot long and 30-foot tall continuous video from 354 digital projectors.
Because of his tenure running the Guggenheim, sometimes amid controversy, and because he hatched the MassMoCA idea, Krens is the most visible face of the EMRCA project. But Krens posted a slide near the end of his talk and declared: “This is hardly a one-person event . . . and that’s what will make it successful . . . these things are always a community effort.”
- Tom Krens’ Global Cultural Asset Management consultancy
- Berkshire Eagle story Feb. 8 about Hoosic River Revival deal
- Bloomberg LP columnist Justin Fox’s visit to Tourist | the economic challenge (Dec. 18, 2018)
- Aug. 2015 ArtNews story about Global Contemporary at that time
- An Observer article about the Global Contemporary in 2016
- MassLive, Feb. 2018, photos of EMRCA mockup and four-minute video interview with attorney Ben Sosne —Motion and the space between high culture and popular culture