Adams wants more than mowed lawns at Greylock Glen

ADAMS — Hard times and failed dreams aren’t new in the North Berkshire town of Adams. Since 1940, the picturesque hamlet has lost nearly one-third of its population as its paper and textile mills have moved out or closed, leaving Adams without an economic base. But the state government has tried to help the town help itself. In 1985, Gov. Michael Dukakis signed into law a plan by which Adams would be able to connect its downtown economy with the crown jewel of the Berkshire Hills, Mount Greylock. This would be accomplished via Greylock Glen– 1,063 acres of state-owned meadows, woodlands, and ponds at the eastern base of the state’s highest mountain peak– and $8.5 million in bond funding to be overseen by the Department of Environmental Management.

Adams Quick Facts

Incorporated as a town: 1778
Population: 8,809
Land area: 23 square miles
Type of government: Representative town meeting


  • Named after the Boston patriot Samuel Adams, the town of Adams began as a farming community. By the end of the 19th century, it was a major exporter of paper and textile products.
  • Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s highest peak, has an elevation of 3,491 feet and is named after “frowning Chief Greylock,” a Waronoke warrior who led raids against the British and the colonists in the Connecticut River Valley.
  • Suffragette Susan B. Anthony was born in Adams on Feb. 15, 1820.
More than 16 years later, a number of ambitious development plans have been dashed, and town leaders charge that much of the $8.5 million has been frittered away on consultants and maintenance work. In July, the Adams Board of Selectmen questioned the $10,000 spent last year on mowing grass in the glen, which led the DEM to cancel its five-year contract with a landscaping firm. The selectmen, along with four environmental groups, have formally complained about how the money has been spent and asked the Legislature to investigate whether DEM spent any money illegally. Town Administrator James J. Leitch says that he’s received no official response from DEM, but state Rep. Daniel Bosley and state Sen. Andrea Nuciforo have assured him that the department’s commissioner, Peter Webber, will provide a detailed accounting of expenditures.

In addition to their frustration with the state, Adams officials say that environmentalists who claim to be protecting the mountain are really obstructionists who won’t agree to anything. “If anything, that’s an understatement,” says Leitch of the obstructionist label. “They have opposed every development alternative politically and through the Legislature. They have affiliated themselves with other state environmental organizations, and they have used just about every means available other than litigation to stop this.”

For their part, environmentalists say the proposed schemes– including 850 vacation homes and a championship golf course– are pipe dreams that could ruin the landscape but never attract sufficient private investment to be successful.

With $3.9 million of the bond money left, most parties believe that something will be built within the next two years, but on a much smaller scale than envisioned. The DEM has authorized the quasi-public Massachusetts Development Finance Agency to spend up to $2 million to build a 28-acre environmental education center, with trails and other amenities, at the glen. Leitch and others are encouraged by the shift in responsibility to MassDevelopment.

“[Greylock Glen] was a different kind of project than we usually do,” says Mary Griffin, DEM’s chief of legal services. “It was more of an economic revitalization project, where we are a statewide forests and parks management agency…. We think it’s appropriate now that the proposed work has been given to MassDevelopment as the lead agency.”

Though there seems to be momentum behind the education center, town officials aren’t ready to give up bigger ideas. On July 31, the Adams Board of Selectmen unanimously passed a resolution in favor of building a tramway up Mount Greylock. “I think it would be a good project for the town and region, but I don’t think there is much hope that it will get built,” admits Leitch.

“We’re famous in this part of the world for dredging up impossible dreams,” says Tad Ames, president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, an advocacy group that has worked to stymie the most ambitious developments. “When the tide has risen, the Berkshires– and North Berkshires in particular– haven’t always risen for as high or for as long. And with Adams, the Dukakis administration made the promise, ‘We’re going to turn things around with Greylock Glen.’ In hindsight, it was a bad idea and a false promise.”

But a dream that has died hard.

Mount Greylock has inspired grand development schemes as far back as the 19th century, when visitors were transported up the mountain in horse-drawn carriages. The Tramway Authority, created in the early 1950s, unveiled plans for a $5.5 million tramway that would have been the world’s largest. But the 1985 bond legislation specifically prohibited a tramway; instead, DEM spent at least $2 million planning the Heritage Project, a private-development scheme slated to include a high-end golf course, cross-country ski trails, and 850 homes. That proposal led to a drawn-out battle with environmentalists.

“We objected to housing, because you’re turning what is a public reservation into a private neighborhood,” says Ames.

As things turned out, environmental groups weren’t alone in fighting the project, which was closely identified with the Dukakis administration. Shortly after Republican William Weld took over the governor’s office in 1991, he refused to authorize another $20 million for the plan, and the Heritage was history.

After another five years, and another $2 million, DEM came up with a second major project, called Greylock Center. With a price tag of $151 million, the development included the Heritage’s golf course and ski trails, plus a 160-room conference center and a smaller number of vacation homes (300 instead of 850).

“The ’90s were basically taken up trying to give [the Heritage Project] a second try,” says Ames, who served most of the decade on the Board of Environmental Management, which oversees DEM policies. In 2000, Ames underscored his opposition to the Greylock Center plan by declining to seek another seven-year appointment from the governor.

But Greylock Center, like the Heritage Project, couldn’t survive a change in the governor’s office. In June 2001, Gov. Jane Swift said that the project wasn’t financially feasible and pulled the plug on it, even though she had supported it as a state senator when it was first announced. A report by the state’s inspector general several months later concluded that DEM, among other failings, hadn’t demanded enough financial information from developer Christopher Fleming, who was unable to attract enough private investment to proceed with the project.

Ames now says that Swift “realized that project couldn’t be killed because it was already dead, and just pulled the plug.”

Town officials have higher hopes for the more modest goal of building an environmental education center. Since this summer, MassDevelopment has been soliciting proposals for the 28-acre center, along with compatible ideas on how to use the rest of the Greylock Glen site.

“Not only is it our hope, it is our understanding that the environmental center is the first phase of the reuse of the site,” Leitch says. “We support it and hope the environmentalists will also– and expect that they won’t.”

Indeed, Ames says that environmentalists aren’t ready to sign off on the environmental center quite yet: “You can’t just say in a vacuum, ‘Yes, we like it,’ because so much of it depends on what else goes with it and what happens with the land there.”

This position rankles local officials, who see the glen as Adams’s golden goose. Leitch says that environmentalists have reneged on a verbal agreement to work with the town, and he predicts that they won’t rest until the glen has been annexed to Greylock Reservation, an area of more than 3,000 acres surrounding the peak that is off-limits to development of any kind.

“I think ultimately they’re going to try to absorb the whole 1,063 acres on us,” says Selectman George Haddad. That result would be anathema to Haddad, who says he has supported every major plan for the glen to come down the pike, even a casino. To Haddad, Greylock Glen is too valuable to be, well, put out to pasture. “I can tell you that that land is far too important to the town. We’re not going to just going to sit back and let that go on. It’s 101 economics.”

But Amherst resident and Sierra Club official Elise Campbell, who also served on the Board of Environmental Management during the 1990s, says that economics, not environmental purism, doomed the previous Greylock Glen projects. Private investors never came forward, she argues, because they weren’t convinced Adams was going to be a major tourist destination anytime soon. The New Yorkers who flock to upscale Stockbridge and Lenox don’t even make it as far north as Pittsfield, she says. Still, Campbell allows that Adams could very well attract a different type of tourist, similar to the hikers who frequent the Catskills and the Adirondacks in New York, but only if it became “a nice place to go.”

Even then, she adds, “It’s not going to be Newport.”

The stalemate over Greylock Glen may have the benefit of focusing attention on the effort to revitalize downtown Adams. It can’t escape the notice of town officials that the biggest tourism success in the Berkshires since the Greylock Glen saga began has had nothing to do with golfing or skiing: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in neighboring North Adams.

MassDevelopment president Michael Hogan, a former mayor of Marlborough, says that when his agency entered the picture, it recommended a simple strategy to the town of Adams: “You have this incredible tourism mecca to the north of you. Add yourself to that.”

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The environmental education center is a potential fit for that strategy; it taps into the expanding environmental studies programs at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. Similarly, a new MassDevelopment-sponsored technology center in downtown Adams could link up with a significant high-tech cluster in Williamstown and North Adams– fleetingly referred to, during the dot-com high times, as Silicon Village.

Hogan says that Adams deserves to have something good happen to it. “It’s such a sweet town. You kind of expect to see Jimmy Stewart on the corner.” But he adds that well-meaning townspeople have at times succumbed to the “silver bullet mentality”: the belief that a casino, say, or a baseball stadium is the ticket to economic prosperity. “People fixate on one thing. But the silver bullet doesn’t work.”