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Hospital closing roils North Adams

After loss of care, worry about struggling city’s economy

Melody Fisher and her son Zachary attended  a meeting on  the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital.

Barry Goldstein for the Boston Globe

Melody Fisher and her son Zachary attended a meeting on the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital.

NORTH ADAMS — Dr. Charles O’Neill had taken this route countless times during his 27 years at North Adams Regional Hospital — through the lobby and down the halls to the maternity ward where he delivered thousands of babies.

But his walk two weeks ago was like no other. The hospital, once humming with activity, was eerily quiet. And instead of arriving to help bring a child into the world, O’Neill came to carry out a mundane task: retrieving a pair of shoes he left behind when the 129-year-old hospital abruptly shut in late March.

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Like many others in this hard-luck city, O’Neill was stunned by the closing of North Adams Regional. Almost overnight, he had to move his maternity deliveries about 20 miles away to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and make plans to relocate 15 employees to an office in nearby Adams. He also needed to take on the patients of another doctor in his office — a Canadian citizen who could no longer treat them because her work visa was tied to the shuttered hospital.

“We’re scrambling,” O’Neill said. “It has put a strain on our practice.”

The demise of the North Adams Regional — which went in and out of bankruptcy over the past six years as patient numbers declined — is the latest gut punch taken by this economically depressed city of about 14,000 people on Massachusetts’ western edge. The hospital not only allowed easy access to medical care, it was also the city’s largest employer, with more than 500 jobs. Even before the hospital went dark, the North Adams unemployment rate — at 8.7 percent — was already two percentage points above the state average.

It is still unclear how badly the closing will affect local businesses that provided supplies and services to the hospital, or whether shops and restaurants that counted on the regular business from the hospital’s workers can survive.

But there is no uncertainty about how people are feeling: angry and betrayed. You’ll hear those sentiments expressed at the downtown hot dog joint, in churches, in the laundry rooms of subsidized housing complexes, and in the brick mill buildings that have been converted into trendy artists lofts close to the city’s major attraction — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

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“We’re isolated from power structures, from the state. [But] it is our hospital, it is our place,” said Kathy Keeser, a service coordinator at Mohawk Forest Apartments, a low-income housing complex two miles past the steep hairpin turn that greets motorists entering the city on Route 2.

Over breakfast at Linda’s Cafe on a recent morning, Orchid Beauty Salon hairdressers Michele Kirby, 69, and Karen Cota, 74, said several of their regular customers worked at the hospital. They expect them to stretch out the time between haircuts and treatments. But beyond that, they worry about more businesses closing and homes being put up for sale, further driving down already depressed property values. The median sales price of a home in North Adams is $116,500, compared with about $300,000 statewide, and the median household income of $36,510 is about half the statewide number.

“It’s so discouraging,” Kirby said. “What’s going to happen to the young people?”

People have been asking that question for years here. The answer is always the same — they usually leave.

Mayor Richard Alcombright said the hospital closing is particularly tough to take because it came at a time when the local economy seemed to be gaining modest momentum. One of the largest Walmarts in the western part of the state opened last year, soon after stationery business Crane & Co. added 85 full-time jobs and another shift. The popular Mass MoCA is in line for a $25 million state grant to expand exhibit space.

“We felt like we were moving right along and this happened,” said Alcombright, sinking into his leather chair at City Hall days after the closing. He was taking a break from a gauntlet of hospital-related meetings with the governor, attorney general, state public health leaders, and more than a 100 residents.

“Talk about the wind out of your sails,” Alcombright said.

Once — long ago — it wasn’t like this. Mills along the Hoosic River churned out textiles, iron plates, and shoes. Arnold Print Works, which closed its North Adams facility in 1942, bragged that every single day it manufactured enough printed fabric to stretch from the Berkshire city to Boston, 130 miles away.

During World War II, Sprague Electric Co. made parts for everything from atomic bombs to televisions. At its height, Sprague employed 4,000 people, nearly a quarter of the city’s population. After several cutbacks during the mid-1980s, Sprague finally shut down its main North Adams plant in 1985, throwing nearly 600 people out of work.

Eventually, Mass MoCA, funded with state and private money, took over the sprawling Arnold Printing and Sprague Electric site. Today, every conversation about North Adams’s future includes the 15-year-old museum. It was supposed to make the city a tourist destination, and to some degree it has — about 130,000 visitors come each year, generating about $20 million in economic activity, according to museum director Joseph Thompson. The massive open spaces of the renovated mill buildings are ideal for ambitious installations; some of the world’s most prominent contemporary artists have exhibited at Mass MoCA.

Despite the quality of the art — and high expectations from the start — most visitors to the city are daytrippers. Museum officials hope the Legislature will help change that by approving $25 million for the next phase of the its expansion.

As the museum grows, Thompson is betting more people will stay longer, dining out in restaurants, shopping, and booking rooms at local inns. But he concedes it will not be enough to make up for the immediate loss of the hospital.

Besides, not everyone is convinced spending more money on Mass MoCA is the best way to rescue North Adams. Since the hospital closed, some residents have grumbled about the state’s willingness to invest in a cultural institution even as people lose ready access to health care.

Molly Downing, 22, said making the trip to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield will pose yet one more challenge for people already struggling. One in six residents are over age 65, according to state health statistics. Many others are poor, without cars or easy public transit options.

“They should be focused on how to save the hospital and services to people,” Downing said of state and local officials. “I feel like the sense of direction is unprioritized.”

Downing’s year-old son was the third generation of her family to be born in the hospital. That’s not unusual.

Linda Lefaver, owner of Linda’s Cafe on Route 2, said almost everyone in the city has a tie to North Adams Regional Hospital, whether they were treated there, worked there, or knew somebody who did. Lefaver, 70, spent seven years as a critical care assistant at North Adams Regional before opening her diner two decades ago.

“Everybody’s scared,” she said of the closing.

State health officials are striving to restore emergency room services at the hospital, with Berkshire Medical Center taking over the operations. Berkshire Medical said last week it had rehired 96 workers for permanent positions and another 47 employees for three-month assignments. But the hundreds of other jobs tied to North Adams Regional are unlikely to return.

On Tuesday, hundreds of North Adams residents and nurses converged on the State House to demand that Governor Deval Patrick and his administration speed up the emergency room’s reopening.

City Councilor Jennifer Breen said the hospital’s failure reminded her of the Sprague shutdown. Breen’s father was laid off then, but he retrained to become a computer science teacher.

It is that kind of persistence that residents will have to tap into once again to overcome the hospital’s loss. People who call North Adams home know how to fight, said Breen, a lawyer who returned to the city after working for two years as a Middlesex County prosecutor in Cambridge.

“That’s what we do here,” she said. “We claw our way back.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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