Community Spotlight: Stockbridge
Stockbridge became known for its quintessential New England charm after it was depicted by artist Norman Rockwell in a masterpiece titled “Main Street.”
The town is also known for its cultural offerings, which include Tanglewood, and Stockbridge has become a destination for people who appreciate its unique character. But, despite the fact that hotel-room occupancy was up 5.3% this summer, cell-phone service is extremely limited and available in just a few locations.
In fact, Selectman Stephen Shatz said it’s not unusual for him to be asked by tourists who are shopping downtown where they can go to use their phones. “They come here with the expectation that they will have cell-phone service, and you can see them on the streets hunting for a place where they can find it,” he told BusinessWest.
That problem will soon be solved, as Verizon is in the process of installing a cell-phone tower on the town’s capped landfill.
“We’ve completed the local part of the permitting process,” Shatz said, explaining that, two years ago, the Board of Selectmen proposed a zoning bylaw to permit the tower to be erected, which received a favorable vote at a town meeting last year. He added that town officials were quite pleased to have the well-known, licensed FCC carrier win the bid because the law requires the company to provide up to four co-locations for other cell-phone companies. “We also negotiated the right to put up municipal public-safety antennas on the tower, although there are no plans to do that at the moment,” he noted.
Preliminary work is expected to begin in March, which will involve installing electricity and a landline at the site. Construction of the actual tower will start next summer, and “by this time next year we should have cell service in town,” Shatz said.
It’s one of a number of measures officials are taking to keep pace with changes in society and allow the town that always appears frozen in time to be anything but.
“Many people have an image of Stockbridge that is immutable. They think of it like the Norman Rockwell portrait, but change does occur, even when you do nothing,” Shatz said.
He explained that, in addition to advances in technology, which require infrastructure to support them, the town’s population has grown smaller and considerably older, which presents a number of intriguing challenges.
“The town has changed. Between 1996 and 2010, our population decreased by almost 20%, and the median age went from 31 to 55,” he told BusinessWest. “Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life in Berkshire County, and even though we don’t have all of the tools we need to respond, we are trying.”
Three years ago, Shatz also came up with the idea to take a new look at other measures that will help the town move into the future and meet the needs of residents and tourists, who are vital to its economy. To that end, a committee has been formed for a Visionary Project that could lead to a master-planning process.
“The last master plan was completed in 1996, and although it was supposed to be looked at every five years, that never happened,” Shatz explained.
One of the first steps will be to initiate a discussion with residents about services they need and want and how the town can provide them. “About 60% of our residences belong to second-home owners. It’s pretty significant because we get income from the taxes they pay, but these people aren’t actively involved in the community. They participate in our cultural and community activities, but they can’t vote, and we are trying to find ways to involve them in our ad hoc committees,” Shatz said.
Since their input is critical to the Visionary Project, the 10-person committee, chaired by Shatz, includes two second-home owners as well as people born in Stockbridge and those who moved there recently.
“We need a different model and want to increase public awareness about our challenges,” he said, adding that the town appropriated $25,000 to fund the initial phase of the project.
Leslie Shatz (Stephen’s wife) is a trustee of the Stockbridge Library Assoc., head of its development committee, and a member of its capital campaign steering committee, which was formed four years ago to raise funds to renovate and revitalize the town’s private, nonprofit library and museum. “It contains more than 500 artifacts along with artwork and detailed records of the town’s history,” she said, adding that the renovations were prompted by the need to install an elevator to make the library’s three floors handicapped-accessible because the historic building had been untouched since its last renovation in 1937.
Library Director Katherine O’Neil said that, right after she was hired in June 2011, the library received a $6,000 grant for a code review of the building. The following month, Center Line Architects from Vermont was selected to do the work, which included preliminary design schematics. In addition, a consultant was hired to determine whether it was realistic to raise the funds needed for a major renovation. The result was positive, and a capital campaign kicked off in 2013, right after Thanksgiving.
“By the end of January 2014, we had raised $1 million in pledges and contributions,” Leslie Shatz said, adding that they included some “magnificent leadership gifts.”
The John and Jane Fitzpatrick Fund, headed by Nancy and Ann Fitzpatrick-Brown, contributed $500,000, and an equal amount was donated by sisters Mary Stokes Waller and Carol Fremont-Smith in memory of their mother and grandmother.
Revenue raised to date includes a grant of $600,000, $500,000 in historic tax credits, and $200,000 from the town. As a result, the renovation is well underway and the committee is close to wrapping up its $4 million fund-raising goal.
“The library is essential to the community life of Stockbridge. It opened in 1862 during the darkest days of the Civil War and was launched by a group of public-spirited men who believed a library was central to the life of the town,” Leslie Shatz said.
“They put up the money needed to build the structure on donated land and challenged the townspeople to raise enough to buy books. It was a community endeavor,” she continued, adding that the first librarian was the sister of a Supreme Court Justice, and the library was only one of five built in the U.S. during the war.
The new building will retain the majority of its historical elements, but square footage has been added for the elevator. Space has also been repurposed in the attic, the roofline has been raised, and skylights are being installed.
In addition to updating the electrical, plumbing, and heating and air-conditioning systems, a new multi-purpose room will accommodate up to 35 people in the main area of the building.
“It will give us the option of holding more library programs as well as allowing groups in the community to use the space,” Leslie Shatz said.
O’Neil said a strategic plan for new programming was created for 2012-17 after input was received from focus groups and community surveys, which resulted in an expansion of existing programs and a plethora of new ones, including a financial-literary program for teens and their parents that will be conducted by second-home owner Jon Budish.
“The renovation has been a wonderful project to be part of, and we are looking forward to letting patrons see the renovated space and using it to better serve their needs and interests,” O’Neil said.
The work is slated to be completed in January, and the building will open after the books are shelved and the museum artifacts are put into place.
“We have been exceptionally gratified by the support we have received for the project,” Leslie Shatz said. “We are all very excited about opening the doors and welcoming the community into the building.”
While the library project draws to a close, there are other initiatives taking shape in this picturesque community.
One of the primary challenges the town faces is providing ambulance, police, and fire protection, since the population increases by 7,000 on summer weekends.
To lower operating costs and take advantage of underutilized sites, the Board of Selectmen has taken a proactive stance, and in addition to the cell phone tower, it plans to establish a solar farm on the landfill. The board is in the process of selecting a provider, but the project cannot begin until it receives permission from the state.
“If we’re successful, it will cover the cost of almost 100% of the electricity used to power the town’s buildings,” Shatz said. “The landfill has the potential to be a real income generator because we will receive rent from Verizon which could amount to $30,000 annually. It’s real money to a small town.”
Stephen Shatz said Stockbridge is a great place to live, but lacks the type of jobs needed to retain and attract young people. So he hopes the Visionary Project, coupled with a new cell-phone tower, solar farm, major renovations to the library, and efforts to get second-home owners more involved will help Stockbridge solve the challenges it faces.
“The Visionary Project is related to finances and services,” he said. “One of the only things we can do is provide a regulatory framework conducive to smart growth.”
Indeed, that is in line with the change occurring on many levels in a town so picturesque that it attracts tourists from all over the world.
Stockbridge at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1739
Area: 23.7 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $8.67
Commercial Tax Rate: $8.67
Median Household Income: $65,323 (2013)
Family Household Income: $79,144 (2013)
Type of government: Town Administrator/Board of Selectmen/Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Berkshire Theater Festival; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available