Known for its historic mills, North Adams for the past few decades has been faced with the question of how to utilize these large spaces that once housed the city's industries. For their senior seminar class this past semester, a group of public policy students took an in-depth look at these substantial brick buildings and how they might be used in the 21st century.
"The course was very hands-on," said Petra Hejnova, who taught the seminar. "We had a lot of people speak to the students and took field trips. Basically, we went over the history of North Adams and of mills in the Berkshires, as well as urban policy, as we studied mill and community development."
As their final project, the students in Petra Hejnova's seminar focused on the Windsor Mill, coming up with ideas on how it might best serve the City. Owned by the City of North Adams, the mill is occupied by a small handful of businesses. Much of its vast space stands vacant.
Divided into three groups, the students presented their findings and suggestions to members of the community, including Mayor Richard Alcombright, MCLA President Mary K. Grant and Vice President of Academic Affairs Cynthia Brown, well-known city developer Eric Rudd and a former state representative, Daniel Bosley.
One group felt the mill might best be renovated to create affordable housing - perhaps even MCLA-sanctioned housing for students. In addition to space for small businesses, the plans include a cafeteria and recreational facility which could be open to the community as part of a public-private venture.
"It would bring the students off campus and through downtown, helping the economy and to build a relationship between the College, the students and the community," said Mariann Simon '11.
According to group member Todd Foy '12, "There are several different instances throughout the nation and in Canada where old buildings that were once staples of the community have been turned into student housing and centers. It's part of a greater effort to save the old while ushering in the new.
"The Windsor Mill has this ambiance of 'permanence' about it since it was once so integral to the community," Foy continued. "The rationale with our proposal was to transfer this permanence to students. We would now be a permanent fixture in the community, rather than a bubble between Ashland and Church streets. We could spend our money at local shops and offer our hand at more community events."
Another group, which included Caitlin Versailles '12, focused on tearing down the older, less-used, more ill-repaired sections of the mill to open up the courtyard to back parking lots, as well as the entire complex, in general, to more foot traffic.
"We wanted to focus on business and improving the marketability of the mill to outside companies, and we were hoping that opening up the complex and repairing it would do so," Versailles said.
The third group believed that North Adams, the Chamber of Commerce and other interested parties should focus on renovating the mill and creating an extensive advertisement campaign to promote it.
"They thought it would be good to market to young people, coming out of technical schools in the Albany, N.Y., area, who are looking for inexpensive space," Hejnova said.
"I really enjoyed what we accomplished," said Chris Skutnik '11. "The information we learned about many of New England's mills felt very relevant to the project we were working on, and I felt extremely satisfied to see the end-result. It was very tangible!"