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Dot-coms turn declining small town into 'Silicon Village'

North Adams today
In 1990, North Adams ranked next-to-last in per-capita income for Massachusetts communities  

In this story:

Silicon Village emerges

The villagers' impact on North Adams


NORTH ADAMS, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Folks in the coffee shop look unfamiliar these days in the small town of North Adams. Downtown, new restaurants and art galleries are opening, and the old theater marquee is restored.

"There's hardly a day goes by that we don't meet someone new moving into the area," said Roger St. Pierre, who owns a barber shop in neighboring Williamstown. "We typically ask, 'New in town? Where are you working?' And it always seems to be a dot-com industry."

Such is the cultural transformation of a small town turned high-tech haven in the rural northwest corner of Massachusetts. Suddenly a country cousin to more famous dot-com centers, North Adams' renewed self-confidence is impossible to miss.

But for years, the mood on Main Street was anything but upbeat. When Mayor John Barrett began his first term 15 years ago, the unemployment rate was around 14 percent and businesses were leaving the area. Shortly after he took office, Sprague Electric -- the town's biggest employer -- announced it was moving out.

"I think even more disturbing was that the president of the company described North Adams as a 'shrinking, depressing city with no future,'" Barrett said.

Residents remember much better days. In the 1940s and 1950s, Sprague Electric employed 4,000 people and its young engineers were the techies of 50 years ago. In 1990, North Adams ranked next-to-last in per-capita income for Massachusetts communities, but Barrett said he still thought his town might attract newer kinds of jobs.

"Did I know what they were?" Barrett said. "I didn't have a clue. But I knew that there was something on the horizon. I knew something was there."

Silicon Village emerges

old North Adams
Forty to 50 years ago, the town thrived on the success of Sprague Electric, which would later leave the 'shrinking, depressing city with no future'  

Actually, there were two "somethings" out there. One was the area's very first high-tech success. The other was a place to house other successes-to-come. In the early 1990s, Dick Sabot created an online community company called Tripod after two of his students at Williams College approached him with an idea.

"One of the areas in which we thought young people should be skilled was the emerging Internet, and so we put up a software program that enabled people to build their own Web sites," Sabot said. "We went away and came back a few weeks later, and 60,000 people had built Web sites. And we sort of said, 'Oh, that's interesting.'"

The search engine giant Lycos found it interesting too. In 1998, it bought Tripod for almost $60 million. Other dot-coms saw what Tripod had achieved in a small-town setting, and it was the start of Silicon Village.

Silicon Village found a home after the abandoned Sprague Electric plant was converted into the world's largest Museum of Contemporary Art, called MASS MoCA. MASS MoCA began renting space to a growing number of high-tech companies, turning it into a kind of digital campus.

"We felt that while the vast majority of dot-coms were going to cluster in urban areas like New York and San Francisco, there would be a certain percentage of them that would like to smell the pine," said Joe Thompson, MASS MoCA director. "We also felt that they would like to smell the pine together, so to speak."

Some people were more amused than impressed with the development.

"Oh God! The butt of jokes that I received from my fellow mayors throughout the state of Massachusetts. One of them said, 'You don't even know how to spell the word contemporary, never mind know what it is,'" Barrett said.

And contemporary it certainly is. When MASS MoCA opened in spring of 1999, visitors found maple trees growing upside down. Inside, hanging jars contain unidentifiable creatures making strange noises. Add that to the Uberorgan, which is perhaps the largest musical instrument in existence -- spanning the length of a football field.

The first MASS MoCA tenants were special effects masters Kleiser-Walczak, whose expertise helped make X-Men a hit. Another company, Streetmail, distributes local news online to communities across the country. And local dot-com guru Dick Sabot, of Tripod success, has a new company called, which sells handcrafted goods from all over the world.

But why set up shop in the middle of the Berkshire Mountains?

For one thing, Silicon Village entrepreneurs pay about $7 per square foot, while New Yorkers pay an average of $40 per square foot.

"And that makes the jaws of most New Yorkers drop," Sabot said.

To spread the digital wealth, Ethan Zuckerman, who worked with Sabot at Tripod, started Geekcorps, which sends volunteers to help other countries improve their high-tech industries. Last fall, the first team headed to Ghana.

"The culture around here is much less cutthroat than it is in, say, Silicon Valley, or even within the non-profit culture in D.C.," Zuckerman said.

The villagers' impact on North Adams

St. Pierre Barbershop
Local barber Roger St. Pierre thinks a name change to 'St. Pierre's Barber Shop Dot-Comb' isn't such a bad idea  

Sabot estimates that more than 300 area jobs have been generated by the local dot-com boom and there are more than 1,000 jobs to come. Along with all the dot-commers working in North Adams, MASS MoCA drew some 100,000 visitors in its first year. Together, they've energized the North Adams economy.

Prices of Victorian homes have started to climb, the downtown is revitalized, and the area's young people have a working future.

"I think the impact on our local citizens is they're finding that their sons and daughters that they send off to college now have an opportunity to come back here and work," Barrett said.

The county received almost $3 million in federal and corporate funding for high-tech training of local residents, so they can compete for some of these new jobs. And another dot-com company just brought in 75 new employees to a renovated department store on Main Street.

North Adams now faces a new challenge -- the kind any town would welcome. Not enough housing has been renovated for the new employees, and contractors are getting harder to find. Does the tech invasion worry long-time residents?

"They know that there are different people in town and the comment that I get now is, 'I was down at the coffee shop the other day and I didn't recognize one person in there,'" Barrett said.

Thompson is optimistic about the community of North Adams and its future.

"It's a small town; everybody eats in the same cafe; everybody gets their hair cut in the same barber shop. That kind of community building, I think, begins to bridge those gaps," Thompson said.

But folks are still a bit perplexed by what they see at MASS MoCA. As for the Internet, it seems everyone wants to get in on the act, including the owner of the St. Pierre Barber Shop.

"Someone suggested I rename the barber shop 'St. Pierre's Barber Shop Dot-Comb.' And I just might do that!" St. Pierre said.

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