Lenox Strives to Become a Year-round DestinationWhen Channing Gibson envisions what the town of Lenox will look like in the future, he sees a vibrant, year-round destination with a wide array of recreational activities that appeal to young people, along with the cultural attractions that have drawn tourists to the area for generations.
“Recreation could range from birding to biking, hunting, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing,” said the chair of the town’s Board of Selectmen. “We have a town beach on Laurel Lake, and although the traditional tourist comes here for relaxation and culture, there is an opportunity to attract people for recreation as well.”
Right now, the town is packed with tourists whose typical goal is to relax and enjoy the wealth of cultural events offered during the summer. In the coming months, many guests will also attend weddings, because the pastoral setting and large number of historic inns and hotels have made Lenox a popular place to get married. “There are so many places to stay that range from modest accommodations to high-end inns and hotels,” Gibson said.
But during the winter, business dies down, and many storefronts close their doors. In addition, young people in Lenox, as well as in other towns in the Berkshires, are leaving the area, and the town’s demographics reflect an aging population.
So the community is looking to create new recreational venues that would attract tourists year-round and appeal to young people. To that end, officials are waiting for the final report from a study conducted by the Conway School of Landscape Design. It is titled “Lenox’s 2013 Open Space and Recreation Plan,” and provides recommendations to improve existing natural and recreational resources.
In order to understand why the town has chosen this focus for its economic-development plan, Gibson said, it’s necessary to look at its past. He explained that the General Electric manufacturing plant in Pittsfield and the tourist industry played vital roles in the town’s economy for generations, and although GE closed its doors in 1986, Lenox continued to thrive, thanks to tourism.
“The Berkshire Visitors Bureau says that Lenox accounts for 40% of the tourist dollars spent in the Berkshires. Our geography works for us, and our hardworking innkeepers and people in the hospitality business make sure that visitors who come to the Berkshires want to stay in Lenox,” he said, adding that Canyon Ranch, Cranwell Resort and Spa, and Tanglewood, whose offices are in Lenox, are among the town’s leading attractions. “But even though we are in the right place, it’s something we can’t take for granted. We have to do things to improve revenues from tourism, and there is a lot of land available that is presently underdeveloped that can be put to good use.”
Town Manager Christopher Ketchen concurs, and says putting a new spin on tourism offers great potential. “We specialize in hospitality and making folks feel welcome, and the town offers picturesque natural beauty in winter as well as in spring, summer, and fall. Plus, we have been designated by the state as a green community and are starting to become known as a center for health and wellness.”
Gibson said the Conway report contains many suggestions, including the fact that existing trails, parks, and other natural resources could be linked by a pathway which would give residents and tourists easy access to recreational resources.
“There are lots of little pieces of land that could also be developed and linked by a trail that could be used for walking, biking, and more; it’s something we can do ourselves,” he told BusinessWest, adding that there is plenty of open space available for new recreational venues, which could increase the town’s vitality and help change its demographics. “Our goal is to find a way to take what worked in the past and bring it into the future.”
Need for Growth
When town officials created the FY 2015 budget, it included a fiscal-impact analysis. Gibson said it had been suggested by a consultant who did some free work for the town, and the Planning Board thought it was an excellent idea. “There are a lot of people with different ideas about what should be done in terms of economic development, and we were told it was important to understand what was needed and what was realistic.”
Unfortunately, it was eliminated from the budget due to cost. But since that time, several things have put a positive spin on the future.
The first is that Ketchen was hired in April; the town had been without a manager for almost a year. He had served as finance director in Hopkinton and deputy director of general government in Wellesley before moving to Lenox, and town officials are optimistic that his enthusiasm and ideas will result in concrete gains.
Ketchen says his plans include hosting open houses so interested builders and developers can meet town officials from different departments.
In addition, a concerted effort is being made to market the attractions in Lenox via the Internet. “In the past, the Select Board did very little in the way of marketing, other than maintaining our infrastructure,” Gibson said. “But now the Berkshire Visitors Bureau is promoting Lenox as a year-round destination with a Google display ad.”
Some businesses have also started their own marketing campaigns, and Gibson said they have been successful. “But we want to maximize the success and continue to promote the town and bring more tourists here,” he explained.
The Conway report will help facilitate that goal. Its recommendations take into consideration the results of two community forums, in which residents overwhelmingly stated that one of their top priorities was to protect the town’s natural resources. But although they want to maintain the pastoral views and ecological richness found in Lenox, the initial report showed that many do not know where the town’s parks are or where they can access hiking trails.
This needs to be remedied, and town officials hope they will also be able to add new recreational offerings. Collaborative efforts will be required to make the vision a reality, but if the plan is approved, it will allow the town to apply for competitive grants from the state as well as from other entities. In addition, Lenox will be able to use monies set aside beginning in 2006 when the town approved the Community Preservation Act. “The Conway report is timely, as last year the state added recreation to the areas in which Community Preservation funds could be used,” Ketchen said.
Although most people think of the Berkshires as a summer destination, he added, marketing will focus on events held during other seasons, such as the Apple Squeeze Festival in the fall; Shakespeare and Co., which hosts performances year-round; and the summer cottages built by wealthy individuals during the Gilded Age. “Some have been reused and turned into hotels and museums,” Ketchen said, citing Canyon Ranch and Ventford Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum as examples.
In addition, Lenox continues to maintain its infrastructure and retain the town’s reputation as a safe, beautiful community. “The majority of our efforts are aimed at tourism,” Gibson said. “We make sure the roads are well-paved, the town is run well, and we have good police and fire departments. It helps the community at large, but is also good for our tourist industry.”
Gibson says every town in the Berkshires is focused on bringing new business to the area, but they have different things to offer. For example, Pittsfield ranks high in terms of size and capacity of building space, while North Adams appeals to lovers of the arts. “So we needed to create our own fertile seed bed, because we don’t have the Mass Turnpike nearby or a lot of industrial space.”
Plans for a small, high-end boutique hotel and spa within a Gilded Age mansion were recently permitted, and a new Courtyard by Marriott hotel has received approval from the Zoning Board.
Both will add to the town’s character, but “the Marriott’s demographics are slightly different than our other inns and represent a young, energetic clientele,” said Gibson. “It’s exciting and could relate well to our plan to create new recreation and change our demographics.”
Ketchen agrees. “We have a lot to offer young people in terms of lifestyle. There is a small-town familiarity here that lends itself to a deep and meaningful sense of community, and this feels like fertile ground for businesses,” he said. “Focusing on year-round amenities will give us an opportunity to bring new vitality to the community, and our creativity will drive our economy in the future.”
Gibson is looking forward to bringing the vision to fruition. “I’m very excited about the potential represented in the Conway plan,” he said. “It’s still pie in the sky, and we are not there yet, but we have a good chance for success.”
Lenox at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025 (2010)
Area: 21.7 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $12.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.91
Median Household Income: $45,581 (2010)
Family Household Income: $61,413 (2010)
Type of government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen, Town Manager
Largest Employers: B Mango & Bird, Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra Inc., Cranwell Resort Spa & Golf
* Latest information available