Lee Builds on Identity as Gateway to Berkshires
By Alta J. Stark
Ask a Lee business leader or owner what the key to their success is, and you’ll hear one resounding answer: “location, location, location.”
Lee’s prime location at Massachusetts Turnpike exit 2 has afforded the town some of the best economic opportunities in Berkshire County. “It’s ideal in that regard,” said Jonathan Butler, the president and CEO of 1Berkshire.
“Lee has always had a solid amount of traffic through its downtown because of its proximity to the Pike, and having Route 20 run right through its downtown, but the community doesn’t rest on location alone,” he told BusinessWest. “They’ve done a lot of work to make the town a destination, not just a spot people pass through.”
The community has undergone quite an impressive downtown revitalization over the past decade, following a series of economic transitions in the ’80s and ’90s, as large employers, including a series of paper mills, closed. The most recent such closure was Schweitzer-Mauduit International in 2008, which led to the loss of several hundred jobs in the community. Butler says the town got back on its feet by “forging a partnership between its town government and its community development corporation. They did a lot of good work in the 2000s, focusing on redevelopment projects of a few key downtown properties. They also did a big facelift for the downtown, making it look much more inviting for all the traffic that comes through.”
“People have worked really hard to make Lee beautiful and livable,” said Colleen Henry, executive director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce. “We’re very innovative in Lee, and always have been.”
In fact, town founders were so savvy, they redirected the location of the Housatonic River. Lee was founded in the 1700s when the river flowed down the town’s current Main Street. Henry says the area flooded often because it was on a downhill, so the river was redirected to expand to the riverbank and enable downtown to flourish.
Today, there’s a lot of diversity to Lee’s economy, including high-quality manufacturing jobs, farms, quality eateries and resorts, eclectic stores, coffee shops, and iconic retailers.
This mix has created an intriguing business story, one that is continuously adding new chapters. For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns some of those pages.
What’s in Store
The largest employer in Lee is the Lee Premium Outlets, which, during the tourist season, employs about 750 people in its 60 outlet stores. Carolyn Edwards, general manager of the complex, said the facility recognizes the important role it plays in driving the local economy.
“We tend to advertise out of market to draw tourists and shoppers to the region. Our customer base is driven by cultural attractions such as Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and Shakespeare & Company,” said Edwards. “But once they’re here, they make a day, sometimes a week of it, and we’re always giving recommendations for ‘what’s a great restaurant to eat at?’ or ‘can you recommend a great hotel to stay at tonight?’ If it’s a rainy day, they ask, ‘what can I do with the kids?’
“We try to stay in tune with what’s going on in the community,” she went on. “And I think it’s a good relationship where we offer something for folks who are here, and then we’re driving business elsewhere as well.”
Edwards said the outlets average about 2 million visitors a year, with shoppers coming from local markets, as well as regional and international locations.
“I love meeting the customers,” she said. “I’m always amazed at people who show up from far and away. In the summer, we have a lot of foreign camp counselors who come here to ramp up their wardrobes before going back to the UK, France, and Spain. It’s fun to see them buy things that they’re excited to bring back and show their families. We always look forward to their return.”
Edwards said they come for brand names like Michael Kors, Coach, and Calvin Klein, and they return each year to see what’s new. “We always want to deliver a new experience when someone comes. We’re different from maybe your local mall in that respect because we’re kind of a destination. Shoppers look forward to coming, they plan on coming, and when they do, that’s always the first question: ‘what’s new?’”
Down the road a piece is the headquarters and distribution center of another iconic retailer, Country Curtains. Colleen Henry said its annual sale at the Rink is a big draw. “When they have their sales, they put up a sign. People stop their cars and get out. Once they do that, and walk around Lee and see all that we have to offer, then we all benefit.”
Trade, transportation, and utilities lead the list of employment by industry in Lee, followed by leisure and hospitality, and education and health services. Manufacturing is number four on the list, and while many of the paper mills have closed, the sector is still holding strong, making up more than 7% of the workforce in the Berkshires, and representing some of the highest wages in the region. In Lee, in particular, there are three high-tech companies along the Route 102 corridor that are providing some of the highest wages in the region.
Onyx Specialty Papers is the town’s third-largest employer with more than 150 employees. Butler said it’s a remnant of some of the larger mill closings in the 2000s that was bought by local shareholders with a vision. “It’s now locally run and owned, and they’ve innovated their technology to produce very unique, technically exacting papers. Their products are distributed across the globe.”
Down the road there’s Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing, a manufacturer to the pharmaceutical industry, a relatively new employer that found its way to Lee with the help of a strong regional partnership.
“We not only helped them find space, we also worked with our local community college to do some specific training for their workforce needs,” said Butler.
SEE: Lee at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1777
Area: 27 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $14.72
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.72
Median Household Income: $58,790
Median Family Income: $71,452
Type of government: Representative Town Meeting
Largest employers: Lee Premium Outlets; Country Curtains; Onyx Specialty Papers; the Village at Laurel Lake; Oak ‘n Spruce Resort; Big Y
* Latest information available
A third high-end employer providing quality jobs is Boyd Technologies, another company that’s been successful in transitioning from one generation of ownership to the next. Butler said he’s encouraged by these companies because “they’re doing a great job of innovating and diversifying what they’re doing. The economy’s evolving, and they’re evolving with it.”
Henry said she’s working to bring in more high-tech companies. “We have the space for it; we have more open land than a few others of the towns in the Berkshires, so we have the room to grow and expand.”
Henry is also excited by a huge project that’s been on the horizon for several years now, the redevelopment of the Eagle Mill. It’s one of those old Schweitzer-Mauduit mills off North Main Street that has been closed for several years.
Renaissance Mill LLC is working to transform the space into a mix of different economic uses that could help expand downtown offerings, adding everything from lodging to additional eateries and attractions.
“Projects like the Eagle Mill give Lee the opportunity to continue to become a bigger and bigger part of the Berkshire visitor economy, and it’s also a space that eventually will be able to attract next-generation families with a variety of different affordable-housing options,” said Butler. “Presently, Lee boasts relatively reasonable real-estate prices from both the rental and buyer’s market perspective. Adding additional affordable housing will position the town to be very competitive.”
Of course, the heart and soul of the town is its quintessential New England charm. Lee has maintained its small-town character through decades of growth and change.
“That’s what we’re all about, and what we would like to be known for even more,” said Henry. “We benefit from the location because we’re at the entrance to a great tourist destination, but we also benefit from the location because it’s beautiful on its own.”
Butler agreed, noting that “Lee is one of those Berkshire communities that’s really bounced back in the past 15 years in terms of its downtown being filled up with great coffee shops, cool bars and restaurants, and an interesting mix of quality stores. It really has a destination feel to it for visitors to the Berkshires, but it’s also the type of downtown that’s really prominent for residents who live in the community.”
Joe’s Diner has been serving the community for more than 60 years, literally and figuratively. Customers far and wide know the diner as the backdrop of one of Norman Rockwell’s most well-known works, “The Runaway,” featuring a state trooper and a young boy sitting on stools in the diner.
The Sept. 20, 1958 Saturday Evening Post cover hangs proudly in the diner, next to a photo of the neighbors Rockwell recruited to model for him, state trooper Richard Clemens and Eddie Locke. Longtime staffers are used to the attention, and don’t miss a beat filling coffee cups while they help make memories for visitors.
Lee is also home to “the best courtroom in the county,” where its most famous case was that of Arlo Guthrie, whose day in court is remembered in the lyrics to his famous war-protest song, “Alice’s Restaurant.”
But there are other hidden gems that Henry invites people to discover, like the Animagic Museum on Main Street, where visitors can learn about the many local animators who made movie magic in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings. One of the town’s quirkiest claims to fame is on property that was once the Highfield Farm. “Monument to a Cow” is a marble statue of a cow named Highfield Colantha Mooie, who in her 18 years produced 205,928 pounds of milk.
Henry says it’s the diversity of business and industry that drives Lee’s economy.
“You can get everything you need in Lee. You don’t have to go somewhere else,” she said. “And you can buy from people who you know, people you see in church and in the grocery store and at basketball games. Supporting the community is really important, and people really do that in Lee. Residents understand that supporting the local economy is really important to our survival.”
Edwards said Lee is unique because of its thriving downtown.
“It’s alive, and it’s beautiful. You turn onto Main Street and see flowers everywhere,” she said. “It’s well-kept, and there are locally owned businesses there and restaurants that are very unique and not necessarily chain restaurants, so there is the best of both worlds in Lee.”
Henry says she’s proud to be part of Lee’s success story and recognizes it’s just part of the bigger Berkshire picture.
“We’re a work in progress, part of a bigger whole that’s more than just individual town thinking,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re tied into this together in a lot of ways.”
Butler agreed, and said the region has a good handle on the future. “We know what the challenges are, and we have a growing understanding of where the opportunities are,” he explained. “Lee is a great microcosm of the Berkshires in that it went through the same economic transitions that the majority of our communities went through in the ’70s into the ’90s and early 2000s, but Lee bounced back.
“It’s found its place in the visitor economy,” he went on. “It’s found its place in having employers that are evolving and doing cutting-edge things, and it’s attracting families. It’s a really great example of the potential for all our Berkshire communities.”