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No Standing Still

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up at the Mount — not just from 2020, but from pre-pandemic 2019.

It may not stack up to Edith Wharton’s best novels, but it’s a compelling story.

“We’ve had an incredibly good season, despite the challenge of staying in compliance with the latest CDC and local health recommendations regarding COVID,” said Susan Wissler, executive director of the Mount, Wharton’s former estate in Lenox that is now a hub for all kinds of arts, nature, and cultural programming.

In fact, Wissler said, this year’s visitorship has doubled that of 2020 — maybe not a striking statistic in itself, given the economic shutdown of that spring and a hesitancy among many people to leave their homes for much of the year. But this year’s figures are also 50% higher than they were in 2019.

Part of that success may be attributed to a decision last year to open up the property’s outdoor grounds and gardens for free. “We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety,” she noted. “We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

“We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety. We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

The house itself still requires admission, and Wissler worried people would take advantage of the free outdoor experience and leave. And maybe some did come with that plan — but many felt compelled to go inside, too. Thus, paid visitation topped the previous two years.

So did weddings, all of which were cancelled in 2020, many of them moved into this year. The Mount typically hosts about 12 weddings per year; it will welcome 26 between May and October.

Meanwhile, NightWood — an ethereal, immersive walking experience featuring original music, lighting, and sculptural elements — was a huge hit last winter, bringing in desperately needed revenue with limited attendance and timed tickets; the Mount will stage the attraction again later this year.

Still, the new focus on outdoor space — which included a lecture series under tents this summer — posed its own issues, particularly weeks when it rained and rained. “That has been a huge frustration for all culturals and restaurants, anyone focusing more attention outdoors,” Wissler said. “The weather was a punch in the stomach.”

MASS MoCA in North Adams also offers programming inside and outdoors, and found plenty of success with both in 2021. “June and July were actually our highest-attended months we’ve ever had — and that includes pre-COVID visitorship,” said Jenny Wright, the museum’s director of Communications.

“We had that brief moment after Memorial Day when we were able to lift restrictions — but we do have an indoor mask mandate in place since August 4 and require our staff to be vaccinated. But we’re very fortunate to have the luxury of lots of indoor and outdoor space on our side,” she noted, adding that, in addition to the museum’s wide corridors and spacious galleries making it easy to physically distance, MASS MoCA made good use of outdoor courtyard space this year to stage performances. “We’re very fortunate to have space on our side during this period.”

The museum’s robust artist-residency programs continued throughout the pandemic as well.

“When people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.”

“Even before we reinstated our performances, we were housing artists in residence to develop new work. That was the catalyst for us developing new digital programming. That was something we hadn’t done much of before,” Wright said, noting that the museum told artist stories with behind-the-scenes documentaries it then posted online as a way to keep the public connected even when they weren’t in the building. It’s also creating 360-degree virtual tours, starting with its famed Sol Lewitt exhibit, to post to the MASS MoCA website.

“Our mission is to make art … new art that has never existed before,” Wright noted. “When you come here and see that, it’s a powerful experience. But when people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.

“For us, it’s really thinking about ways to create multiple points of entry for people, not just the front door,” she went on. “That was something we hadn’t explored in too much depth before.”

Wissler said the Mount found similar success reaching new audiences virtually. “We were really reluctant to get into the pool of virtual programming, but COVID forced us to dive right in — and Zoom programming has been amazing.”

Specifically, events featuring guest authors have been a hit — and found a much broader audience than before. Now, an event that typically drew authors from the mid-Atlantic and New England can bring in guests from pretty much anywhere — and the potential audience has also expanded around the country and even around the world.

“That’s something we’ll continue as we move forward,” Wissler said. “We haven’t found a way to monetize it yet, but from a visitor standpoint, it’s a huge success.”

 

Dramatic Shifts

While many regional destinations and arts organizations shut down completely in 2020, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) turned in one of the year’s most notable success stories, creatively staging an outdoor, socially distanced run of Godspell in August in September — the only show featuring Equity stage actors in the entire country at the time.

Nick Paleologos, executive director, said planning for the 2021 season began in late 2020, and the general feeling as the calendar turned was that current health conditions weren’t going to change dramatically until late 2021 or even 2022.

“So we decided to build on what we learned in the summer of 2020, when we did Godspell outdoors. We planned for a modest but slightly more robust outdoor season on both our campuses, in Stockbridge and Pittsfield.”

In Stockbridge, that meant outdoor runs for The Importance of Being Earnest and a newer play, Nina Simone: Four Women, while in Pittsfield, the theater planned a community version of The Wizard of Oz, but with a slightly scaled-back supporting cast. The organization also scheduled a series of outdoor music performances.

“Then, quite suddenly, Gov. Baker decided to lift all restrictions on Memorial Day weekend, and that caught us a little off guard,” Paleologos said. “We had a planned a whole series of protocols, and now, all of a sudden, we were being told, ‘no problem, go back indoors, you don’t have to wear masks,’ all that.”

So the Stockbridge performances were shifted indoors, to the 120-seat Unicorn Theatre, while The Wizard of Oz in Pittsfield remained outdoors, under tents. While it didn’t have to mandate masks, the Unicorn did require them, even though it had recently upgraded its HVAC system.

“We decided on an abundance of caution — we would require masks and suffer any pushback there might be,” Paleologos went on. “But we encountered very little pushback. People were quite happy, even with the protocols, to wear masks for the entire indoor production. We had hardly any complaints. I think they were grateful to be back inside, in an air-conditioned space, instead of outdoors in Stockbridge during the summer.”

Meanwhile, in Pittsfield, attendees didn’t have to wear masks under the tents if they chose not to, and most didn’t.

But another “curveball,” as Paleologos called it, would follow — and, unlike Baker’s decision in May, it wasn’t a positive one. As the Delta variant of COVID-19 emerged and dramatically increased infection rates in a state where COVID had been largely under control, BTG had a decision to make. It was headed into the Nina Simone part of the season and opted to keep that show indoors — but require proof of vaccination for entry.

“Again, we braced outselves for a backlash which never came,” he said, adding that the theater did have to turn away a few people who did not carry that proof with them, even though they claimed to be vaccinated. But in most cases, those patrons requested a credit for a future performance rather than their money back, and other patrons thanked Paleologos for holding fast to the policy, he noted.

“They said the only reason they were there was because of the protocol. I think we’ve gotten to a stage where the issue of concern over spreading the virus has become almost a reflective action; I think people are kind of acclimated to that.”

 

Places in the Heart

The winter-season holiday show at BTG’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield will be held indoors, with masks and vaccination required, as well as distancing by placing an empty seat between seated parties.

In other words, the show goes on at this company that has learned not only how to pivot, but that its audience is willing to pivot right along with it.

Paleologos said the various shifts this year have not only made the organization more flexible, but have shown him that the public is willing to adapt as well — and that bodes well for any future ‘curveballs.’

“It’s been a real learning experience for us. As we look ahead, we’ve become more nimble with what we do and how we do it.”

It’s just one example of how people are seeking meaningful experiences right now and are, for the most part, accepting of whatever protocols are required to engage in them.

“I think people came out of 2020 feeling starved and lonely,” Wissler said. “They’re thinking about the Mount as a destination — a nice place to meet with friends and socialize. I think people are coming for many reasons other than tourism — it’s a great place to keep up and enjoy personal relationships.”

Wright agreed that the pandemic has driven home the importance of what destinations like MASS MoCA offer.

“After everything that’s happened over the past 18 months,” she said, “it really underscores the importance of the arts and cultural destinations during these difficult times — particularly contemporary art, which is not just reflections of the moment we’re in, but can present us with a view of what’s possible. And I think people really need that right now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Monday to announce $3,740,728 in funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Shuttered Venues Operation Grant (SVOG) program. Joining Neal for this announcement was Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva.

“These funds are incredibly instrumental to operations like the Basketball Hall of Fame who suffered greatly because of the pandemic,” Neal said. “For the safety of the American people, the government forced these agencies to close their doors. And now, it is the government again stepping in to make sure that they are able to get back on their feet.”

Doleva added that “the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant commitment means the Basketball Hall of Fame can stabilize its business operations that were so severely impacted over the last 15 months and allow us to better position ourselves for long-term survival and future growth. Without the SBA’s SVOG, many venues, like ours, would have struggled to regain footing and suffered long-term consequences that for some may have been permanent.”

SVOG was established by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act, and amended by the American Rescue Plan Act. The program includes more than $16 billion in grants to shuttered venues, to be administered by SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance. Eligible entities include live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing-arts organization operators, museum operators, motion-picture theater operators (including owners), and talent representatives.

Across Massachusetts, 244 grants have been awarded, totaling $194,408,323. Thirty-three of those are in the First Congressional District, totaling $20,010,864. In addition to the Basketball Hall of Fame, they include Agawam Cinemas; Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in Becket; Chester Theatre Co.; Public Emily Inc. in Conway; Stationery Factory Events in Dalton; Luthier’s Co-Op in Easthampton; Berkshire Choral International, Berkshire International Film Festival, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, and Shaw Entertainment Group in Great Barrington; Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts in Holyoke; Athlone Artists, Edith Wharton Restoration, and WAM Theatre in Lenox; Exit Seven Players in Ludlow; HiLo Holding Co. and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation in North Adams; Barrington Stage Co. and Berkshire Theatre Group in Pittsfield; Corcoran Productions in Richmond; PDP Productions in Shelburne; Egremont Village Inn and Triplex Management Corp. in South Egremont; Tower Theatres in South Hadley; Bold New Directors in Southampton; Cindy Pettibone in Southwick; Springfield Symphony Orchestra; Old Sturbridge Inc.; NV Concepts Unlimited and the Theatre Project in West Springfield; and Community Images Inc. and Williamstown Theatre Foundation in Williamstown.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says a heavy focus on outdoor experiences last year helped Lenox weather the economic impact of the pandemic.

For the past year, the town of Lenox showed what happens when uncertainty meets a can-do attitude.

Despite the formidable challenges of COVID-19, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said, Lenox residents and businesses have been remarkably resilient.

“Throughout the pandemic, our residents demonstrated how much they love our town,” Ketchen said. “They make their homes here, and our businesses are invested in their customers and their community.”

What began as a normal year of planning events at the Lenox Chamber of Commerce was suddenly derailed in March. Once they realized the pandemic was going to last more than a couple months, Executive Director Jennifer Nacht said, chamber members and town officials quickly met to put together a plan to salvage at least some activity for Lenox.

“We went through each season and developed a general outline of things we could do,” Nacht said. “Even though we did not know what the year was going to look like, we were able to turn around some great activities.”

Like many towns, Lenox encouraged restaurants to offer tented outdoor dining and allowed them to expand outdoor seating into public parking spaces. The town also added covered dining terraces in public spaces around town.

“The select board lifted alcohol restrictions so people could bring a bottle of wine to Lilac Park, for example, where we had set up a dining terrace,” Nacht said.

“You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

Some developments last spring were rough. In May, the town learned that, due to COVID-19 concerns, Tanglewood had canceled its 2020 season. For some perspective on the importance of Lenox’s largest summer attraction, a Williams College study in 2017 estimated the economic impact of Tanglewood to Berkshire County and Western Mass. at nearly $103 million annually.

Because they didn’t know what to expect when Tanglewood called off its season, Nacht said everyone concentrated their efforts on making Lenox a welcome and inviting place. Outdoor dining was a first step that helped to establish a more vibrant atmosphere, and it inspired further activities.

For example, the Lenox Cultural District and the chamber organized Lenox Loves Music, an initiative that featured live music performed at the Church Street Dining Terrace for seven straight Sundays in August and September. It was a hit.

“Because we were able to turn on a dime and get everything set up, we were able to make the outside experience fun,” Nacht said. “As a result, we were better able to weather the financial impact of the pandemic.”

 

Hit the Road

If entry points to walking and biking trails are any indication, Ketchen said the pandemic helped many people discover the town’s outdoor attractions for the first time. “You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

For more than 40 years, Lenox has held Apple Squeeze, a harvest celebration that takes over much of the downtown area with 150 food and craft vendors. The event was canceled for 2020 because of concerns that, even with restrictions, too many people would gather, leading to unsafe crowd sizes.

Lenox Loves Music

Lenox Loves Music was a hit during a time when live music was in short supply.

As an alternative, the chamber and American Arts Marketing developed the Lenox Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when the Apple Squeeze would have taken place. Forty artists set up in different areas around town in ‘artist villages,’ which were arranged so no more than 50 people could be in one area at a time. Foot-traffic flow was also designed to keep people moving through the exhibits.

Nacht said the Art Walk received great feedback, and the artists involved loved exhibiting their work. The event also led to phone calls from event organizers from several Eastern Mass. towns who wanted to know how to stage a similar event.

The old adage about necessity being the mother of invention definitely has proven true for Lenox. “We just tried some different things that we probably would have never attempted, or done so quickly, had it not been for the pandemic,” Nacht said.

In the beginning of the summer, traffic in town was about half of what it would be during a normal season. As the weather became warmer and travel restrictions eased around the state, both traffic and business picked up.

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way,” Nacht said, adding that good weather in the summer and fall extended the outdoor season nearly to Thanksgiving.

While lodging in the area was restricted by the number of rooms that could be offered, she noted, from September through November, inn and hotel rooms were booked to the capacity they were allowed.

As the owner of the Scoop, a Lenox ice-cream store, Nacht was one of many business owners forced to move customer interactions outdoors. She found a fun way to adjust.

“We did it sort of Cape Cod style, where people order at one window and pick up their ice cream at a second window,” she explained, adding that, while 2020 was not as successful as previous years, the Scoop still saw steady business throughout its season. Even non-food stores, inspired by all the outdoor activity, set up tents in front of their shops to add to the vitality.

In a normal year, Lenox Winterland is a tradition to kick off the holiday season that features a tree-lighting ceremony and Santa Claus meeting with children. In this very-not-normal year, Winterland was forced to cancel.

Instead of losing their holiday spirit, however, the Cultural District and chamber presented a creative alternative. Local businesses and artists teamed up to decorate 30 Christmas trees, which were displayed in a tree walk through town. Nacht said the inaugural Holiday Tree Walk was so well-received, plans are in the works to expand and make it an annual event.

“Despite the obstacles of COVID, we had a decent tourism business,” she said. “We’ll continue to offer more fun events to keep the vibrancy of the town going and improving.”

 

Passing the Test

Lenox has always been proud of its cultural amenities, such as Tanglewood, Edith Wharton’s house at the Mount, Shakespeare and Co., and others. As those were scaled back, Ketchen said, the town’s outdoor amenities gained exposure they might not have otherwise.

“Once we are allowed to enjoy our cultural institutions to their fullest again, people will also have more awareness of all the recreational opportunities Lenox has,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a big positive for us as we look to the future.”

While Nacht hopes to see Tanglewood up and running, at least in some form, in 2021, she admits the past year was quite the learning experience. “We are so dependent on Tanglewood, it was an interesting test to see what we could do without Tanglewood there.”

Despite the challenges put on municipal budgets, Ketchen said Lenox was able to pursue several modest infrastructure projects in 2020, such as maintaining roads and public-utility infrastructure. “When folks are ready to come to Lenox for the recreation and the culture, the public utilities and infrastructure will be waiting for them.”

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way.”

In short, Lenox is not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, it’s finding ways to come out stronger on the other side. Indeed, when this community, which depends on cultural tourism, was challenged to find creative solutions to stay afloat, it answered the call. Nacht credited Lenox businesses for making quick and significant adjustments in their operations.

“It was really inspiring to see our businesses make the best out of a not-so-great situation,” she said. “It says a lot about their commitment to our town.”

Undaunted by the near future, Nacht noted several businesses are planning for April openings. And she looks forward to the new year knowing that Lenox can present all the outdoor events that worked well in 2020.

“With knowledge, you just learn to do things better, and we learned a lot last year,” she added. “Once the tulips come out, that’s when we start to see everything come alive again.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A $50 million renovation will transform Elm Court, on the Stockbridge line, into a new resort.

Historic properties are getting a second act in Lenox these days.

Take the $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and has transformed it into a high-end wellness resort, called Miraval Berkshires Resort & Spa, featuring 102 guest rooms and suites, and a luxury, 46-room hotel, Wyndhurst Manor & Club.

Set to open in May, the complex known as Miraval Berkshires is the third Miraval property nationwide, following its flagship in Tucson, Ariz. — named among the top 20 destination spas in the world last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers — and a second location in Austin, Texas, which opened last year. Hyatt acquired Miraval in 2017, and Wyndhurst Manor & Club is part of Hyatt’s Destination Hotels brand.

The 29,000-square-foot spa in Lenox “was conceived to excite all five senses and encourage mindfulness and introspection,” according to the company, and will include 28 treatment rooms, an indoor/outdoor lounge pool, separate relaxation rooms for women and men, a salon, a sauna, a steam room, a retail boutique, and a courtyard that evokes “a sense of harmony with nature.”

The neighboring Wyndhurst Manor & Club, a renovated Tudor-style mansion built in 1894, will offer a more traditional hotel experience, but guests there can purchase day packages for Miraval.

“We are excited to continue the Miraval brand’s expansion with the upcoming opening of Miraval Berkshires, as well as to welcome Wyndhurst Manor & Club to the Hyatt family,” said Susan Santiago, senior vice president of Miraval Resorts, in a release. “These two properties will offer distinct and memorable travel experiences, and we look forward to inspiring once-in-a-lifetime, transformative experiences for all guests who visit our Miraval and Wyndhurst resorts in the heart of the Berkshires.”

Then there’s the Elm Court estate on the Stockbridge-Lenox line, constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt. It completed a series of renovations in 1919 and evolved into an inn in the ’40s and ’50s, hosting dinners, events, and overnight accommodations. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

These days, Travaasa Berkshire County is working on a $50 million renovation of the property to develop a new resort there, featuring 112 rooms, including 16 existing suites in the Gilded Age mansion. After a series of starts and stops, including a holdup in land court in Lenox and a pause for infrastructure improvements to the roadway and water and sewer lines, the project is now moving forward.

“Travaasa Berkshire County’s plan preserves and protects a beloved historic property, respects community character, conserves open space, and contributes to the hospitality culture of the region,” the project website notes. “A tasteful, responsible commercial use of this property by a financially healthy organization will revive a dormant estate, create living-wage hospitality jobs at all skill levels, and maintain the property on town tax rolls.”

Even the Mount, Edith Wharton’s English manor-style home during the early part of the 20th century, is making news these days. Her classic novel The Age of Innocence is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, the Manor is displaying Wharton’s personal copy of the book.

“We have many, many of her works that either have bookplates or her signature — or both, as with this copy — and so, to finally have her own copy of The Age Of Innocence join this collection of her work, it’s amazing. It’s incredible,” Nynke Dorhout, the Mount’s librarian, told Northeast Public Radio recently.

Looking Ahead

Lenox is much more than its historical properties, of course. It’s also long been renowned for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But the business community has seen new energy in recent years as well, with projects like a Courtyard by Marriott that opened in 2017 and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space; the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years; an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies; and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,205
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.10
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.78
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

To address an aging population, town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, and this town of just over 5,000 is looking decidely to the future, while continuing to celebrate and restore its rich past.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

LONGMEADOW — A new public sculpture, “LIFE,” has been installed on the Bay Path University campus. The piece, designed and crafted from a fallen branch of a live oak tree, was created by philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, a longtime resident of Longmeadow and friend of the university.

A dedication for “LIFE” will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 3 p.m. in front of Elliot Hall, and is open to the public. In case of inclement weather, the event will be rescheduled. “LIFE” will be on view at Bay Path University for the next two years.

“We are honored to have LIFE featured so prominently on our campus,” said President Carol Leary. “It is a perfect complement to the surroundings and creates a dramatic outdoor art experience for our students and the public. We are deeply grateful for Harold Grinspoon’s generosity.”

After successful careers in business and philanthropy, Grinspoon, at the age of 87, developed a new passion: art. His work as a sculptor started when a towering cherry tree fell in his backyard. Over the course of time, the fallen tree captured his imagination, only to take form and become a lasting piece of artwork. This first sculpture was eventually placed on view at the Mount, the Lenox home and museum of celebrated author Edith Wharton. It was the starting point for the ensuing 26 unique pieces of large-scale sculptures made from reclaimed trees, selected locally, as well as imported from Florida, California, and elsewhere.

Now at age 89, Grinspoon produces his sculptures in a bustling workshop in Agawam with a large team. His work is also currently included in three curated group exhibitions with SculptureNow at the Mount; XTCA: Cross Town Contemporary Art Exhibition presented by the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst; and Art in the Orchard in Easthampton. His works have also been displayed in three public locations: MGM Springfield, the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, and Mass General Hospital in Boston.

Briefcase Departments

Unemployment Rate Drops to 3.5% in Massachusetts

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% in December, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts lost 300 jobs in December. Over the month, the private sector lost 200 jobs; gains occurred in construction, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, and financial activities. The November estimate was revised to a gain of 7,800 jobs. From December 2016 to December 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 63,000 jobs. The December unemployment rate was six-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 4.1% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor force decreased by 500 from 3,647,500 in November, as 1,900 more residents were employed and 2,500 fewer residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased four-tenths of a percentage point from 3.1% in December 2016. There were 17,900 more unemployed residents over the year compared to December 2016. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — decreased one-tenth of a percentage point to 65.3% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has increased by 0.7% compared to December 2016. The largest private sector percentage job gains over the year were in construction; professional, scientific, and business services; other services; and leisure and hospitality.

Union Station Wins Prize for Brownfields Redevelopment

WESTFIELD — Springfield Union Station has won the prestigious Phoenix Award grand prize for the best brownfields-redevelopment project in the nation. Announced during the December National Brownfields Training Conference in Pittsburgh, the Union Station project also won the Region 1 Phoenix Award. Both awards recognize exemplary brownfield redevelopment and revitalization. These awards highlight the critical environmental cleanup phase at Springfield Union Station, as well as the demolition and removal of a massive baggage warehouse and the remediation of the former site of the Hotel Charles. It also celebrates the redevelopment of a long-vacant historic train station into a state-of-the-art intermodal transit center. Built in 1926, the original Union Station was boarded up for 44 years before taken over by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority in 1989. After many fits and starts, the $94.1 million redevelopment project was funded by numerous federal, state, and local sources. This included grants from the EPA Brownfield Assessment and Cleanup program, MassDevelopment, the Federal Transit Administration, state transportation bond funds, a state parking grant, and more. Tighe & Bond provided extensive hazardous-building-material evaluations, abatement monitoring, building demolition design, and the assessment and remediation of widespread areas of subsurface contamination. After almost 10 years, Union Station has been transformed and repurposed into a LEED-certified building that opened last June, and is the new headquarters for Peter Pan Bus Lines. It has also spurred a new, adjacent, $15 million, 265-unit housing redevelopment. Besides the Phoenix Award, the project has already won other statewide awards for historic preservation, including the Preservation Massachusetts Paul & Nikki Tsongas Best Then & Now Award for 2017.

Expedia Names Lenox ‘Best Place to Escape in Massachusetts’

LENOX — The Lenox Chamber of Commerce announced that travel-booking website giant Expedia has named Lenox as the “Best Place to Escape in Massachusetts.” Expedia released its “Best Place to Escape in Every State” feature on Jan. 3. These places made the list for being ideal for a relaxing getaway where visitors can recharge, take a breather, and revel in serene solitude. “From quaint small towns to quiet nature preserves, this country is full of places to escape to, and we’ve chosen our favorite in each state, highlighting the perfectly restful things to do there. So, sit back, relax, and start dreaming of better times ahead — these calm places are calling your name,” Expedia author Lily Rogers wrote. Lenox and Berkshire notables highlighted in the article included Blantyre, Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home, and Berkshire Grown.

Study Examines Veterans’ Addiction Risk Related to Childhood Adversity

AMHERST — Results of a national study led by public health scientist Elizabeth Evans at UMass Amherst, along with others at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and UCLA, suggest that risk for alcohol- and drug-use disorders among U.S. military veterans is increased by childhood adversity, and in ways that are different between women and men and different compared to the civilian population. According to Evans, assistant professor of Health Promotion and Policy at UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, in the general population, fewer women than men have an alcohol- or drug-use disorder. “Veterans are different in that there is no gender difference in the prevalence of these problems,” she explained. “Among veterans, a similar proportion of women and men — about 37% — have ever had an alcohol or drug-use disorder. This finding that women veterans are similar to men veterans, and are so different from civilian women, is unexpected. Also surprising are the high rates of childhood adversity among veterans, especially among women; 68% of women veterans report some childhood adversity, and they have the highest rates of childhood sexual abuse.” The study results appeared in a recent early online edition of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology and will be in print this year. “One of the implications of this study is the need to assess for childhood adversity, to help people recognize its relationship with substance use and cope with its health impacts,” Evans noted. “When people join the military or when veterans access healthcare at the VA or in the community would be good times to assess and treat childhood adversity, and we’re often missing those opportunities now.” The researchers found that, with increasing exposure to adversity in childhood, risks of alcohol-use disorder among civilian men and women grew more similar, but for drug-use disorder, the gender differences in risk widened. By contrast, among veterans, more childhood adversity elevated men’s alcohol risk and increased women’s drug risk. “In general right now, we don’t assess for childhood adversity until there’s a problem, in particular with alcohol or drugs, or attempts to harm oneself or others,” Evans said. “However, we know that childhood adversity is an early life experience that is associated with anxiety, depression, and other risk factors for later health and social problems. We in public health, along with others in the community, can do more to prevent childhood adversity altogether. Also, more can be done to assess and address childhood adversity when it does occur so that we mitigate or undo its harmful effects. The need for such efforts is especially critical now given the devastating impacts of the current opioid epidemic on families and communities.”

Nominations Open for Ubora and Ahadi Awards

SPRINGFIELD — The African Hall subcommittee of the Springfield Museums is seeking nominations for the 27th annual Ubora Award and the ninth annual Ahadi Youth Award. The African Hall subcommittee is a volunteer group comprised of educators, business people, and community leaders from the African-American community. The nomination deadline for both awards is March 31. The Ubora Award is presented to an African-American adult who has demonstrated a commitment to the Greater Springfield area and exhibited excellence in the fields of community service, education, science, humanities, or the arts. The Swahili word ‘ubora’ means ‘excellence.’ Named for the Swahili word for ‘promise,’ the Ahadi Youth Award is presented to a young African-American who has excelled in academics and performed admirable service to the Greater Springfield community. Eligible candidates must be age 19 or younger, live in or have strong ties to the Greater Springfield area, and be currently enrolled in grade 10, 11, or 12. The Ubora and Ahadi Awards will be presented at a ceremony at the Springfield Museums in September. Nominations forms can be downloaded by visiting springfieldmuseums.org/ubora. For additional information, call (413) 263-6800, ext. 325, or e-mail to [email protected] Nominations may be e-mailed to [email protected] or mailed to African Hall Subcommittee, c/o Valerie Cavagni, Springfield Museums, 21 Edwards St., Springfield, MA 01103.

Berkshire Bank Launches $52,500 Scholarship Program

PITTSFIELD — Berkshire Bank announced it will honor 35 high-school seniors across Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for their volunteer service with Berkshire Bank scholarships. The scholarships recognize students who excel academically, have a financial need, and share the bank’s commitment to community service. Additionally, students must attend a high school that is located in a county with a Berkshire Bank or Commerce Bank office. The recipients will share in $52,500 in scholarship funds. Through the program, 35 $1,500 scholarships will be awarded to high-school seniors who will be attending a two-year or four-year college in the fall. Applications are evaluated based on the student’s record of volunteerism in the community, academic standing, and financial need. Applicants must have a minimum GPA of a 3.0 and a family household income under $100,000 to be eligible to apply. A team of 200 bank employee volunteers will review the applications and select this year’s recipients. Recipients will include 15 students in Massachusetts, nine in New York, three in Connecticut, three in Vermont, three in New Jersey, and two in Pennsylvania. Students can apply online at www.berkshirebank.com/scholarships. To be considered, all applications must be submitted online by Wednesday, March 21 at 4 p.m. Additional information about this year’s program can be obtained through the bank’s website or by e-mailing the Berkshire Bank Foundation at [email protected]

Daily News

LENOX — The Lenox Chamber of Commerce announced that travel-booking website giant Expedia has named Lenox as the “Best Place to Escape in Massachusetts.”

Expedia released its “Best Place to Escape in Every State” feature on Jan. 3. These places made the list for being ideal for a relaxing getaway where visitors can recharge, take a breather, and revel in serene solitude.

“From quaint small towns to quiet nature preserves, this country is full of places to escape to, and we’ve chosen our favorite in each state, highlighting the perfectly restful things to do there. So, sit back, relax, and start dreaming of better times ahead — these calm places are calling your name,” Expedia author Lily Rogers wrote.

Lenox and Berkshire notables highlighted in the article included Blantyre, Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home, and Berkshire Grown.

“It’s very exciting for Expedia to recognize Lenox as the exceptional place it is once again,” said Jamie Trie, marketing director for the Lenox Chamber of Commerce. “Last year, Expedia named Lenox as a top luxury vacation spot, and USA Today named us the ‘Best Northeastern Small Town.’ This is a great recognition to start off the new year with.”

Cover Story
Collaborative Seeks to Grow the Film, Media Industry in Western Mass.

WMassFilmDPartDiane Pearlman says Massachusetts looks like a lot of places — in this country and around the globe.

“Maybe it doesn’t look like the Sahara Desert, but it can look like most of the rest of the world,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is one of many reasons why the Bay State is becoming increasingly popular with filmmakers at all levels.

Massachusetts, or at least the Franklin County community of Shelburne, looks enough like rural Indiana — the setting for the story behind The Judge — to become the chosen location for the shooting of most scenes in that recently released film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, said Pearlman, executive director of a nonprofit called the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative.

Bringing more high-profile pictures like The Judge, not to mention the many types of economic opportunities they represent, to Western Mass. is a part of the agency’s reason for being, said Pearlman, adding quickly that this challenging assignment falls much more to the Massachusetts Film Office (more on that later).

The Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, whose name is somewhat of a misnomer because its work encompasses the four counties of Western Mass., is instead tasked with shaping film and media production into a greater economic force in this region, one that she believes might keep more young people from leaving this area code.

“Our focus over the past year and a half has been more on job training, education, and addressing the need to attract and retain young people here,” she explained. “And we really believe that film and media is an industry that can do that in Western Massachusetts.”

The collaborative’s core objective is to facilitate film, television, and media projects by providing assistance to production outfits with everything from location scouting to permitting, to finding local crew and equipment. At the same time, the agency works to help individuals attain and hone the skills needed to work in the industry.

Pearlman said the BFMC, formed in 2009, is committed to:

• Nurturing its community of film and media professionals through educational courses, lectures, and seminars;

• Creating job opportunities in the film and media sector through adult workforce-development courses;

• Networking area professionals and introducing them to local businesses in need of film and media services; and

• Marketing the region’s film and media professionals and undiscovered locations to national and international film and television markets.

Diane Pearlman

Diane Pearlman says the film and media industry can be an economic engine in the Pioneer Valley, and the collaborative is committed to making it one.

Most of these facets of the agency’s mission came together in late October at the inaugural Western Mass. Film & Media Exchange, staged at the Baystate Health Conference Center in Holyoke.

In addition to keynote speaker Douglas Trumbull, a filmmaker and special-effects pioneer whose film credits include everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Blade Runner, the event featured a number of workshops and lectures, as well as a networking social.

Among those in attendance was Michail Charalampidis, a recent Hampshire College graduate who wasn’t quite ready to return to his homeland of Greece after commencement and chose instead to pursue opportunities within the film industry in Western Mass. — or wherever else he could find them.

He’s landed a few minor positions with some productions, and is currently working with Trumbull at his studio in the Berkshires. More importantly, thanks to Trumbull, Pearlman, and others, he’s meeting people, learning about the business, and making all-important connections.

“Diane put me in touch with the visual-effects producer of Game of Thrones, and I could be working for them starting in January; maybe not, but I’m touch with him,” said Charalampidis. “I’m also in touch with the visual-effects producer of Interstellar, who’s starting a new movie in January, and they put me in touch with people working on the new Avengers, so I could go work for them.

“All of these are up in the air,” he went on, “but I’ve become part of this chain where you get involved in conversations. People say, ‘do you want to work on The Avengers?’ and I say, ‘of course.’ Diane and her people have really helped me connect.”

That one word probably best sums up the mission of the collaborative, said Pearlman, adding that, in many ways, Charalampidis’s story personifies the ongoing work of the BFMC.

“Film is a word-of-mouth industry,” she explained, adding that the collaborative’s overarching goal is to generate word-of-mouth referrals for individuals, companies, communities — and the region as a whole.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the agency goes about doing just that.

First Take

It was called ‘Get a Grip.’

That was the name attached to a program dedicated to helping individuals eventually attach their name to that often-recognized but mostly misunderstood position listed within the credits at the end of a movie — the ‘grip,’ maybe even the ‘key grip.’

“These are essentially the stage hands on a film set — if you needed to put a cameras on a dolly where you built track and push the cameraman, a grip would do that; they operate camera cranes, they do everything but the lights,” said Pearlman, adding that 25 people took the class, staged last March.

And additional courses are in the planning stages, she went on, adding that the next one may focus on another profession within the industry — gaffer, an electrician — or cinematography.

Such programs constitute one of the many ways the BFMC carries out that aforementioned mission, said Pearlman, adding that training new talent is just part of the equation.

Indeed, the region already boasts a number of talented individuals, including some who have won Academy Awards, she noted, adding that the collaborative wants to bring more work to them and help their businesses succeed and grow.

And it does this by attracting more projects, making constituencies, including the business community, more aware of that existing talent, and providing education to small-business owners in this broad sector, such as the workshops at the Film & Media Exchange.

“Many of the panels we did were about how to better run your business, because filmmakers are artists, and we want them to be able to ask the questions, know how to set up their businesses, and know how to market their businesses,” she explained. “We also invited local companies, because they need video. Whether it’s for a conference or for the web, more and more businesses need video, and they don’t know where to go. A lot of times, they’ll call their brother in L.A. or their cousin in New York and say, ‘how do I get this video done?’ They don’t know that they have all the talent they need right here.”

The BFMC’s work began in 2009, said Pearlman, and, as the name suggests, the initial focus was on the Berkshires, which, during the ’90s, was home to a number of special-effects houses, including Lenox-based Mass.Illusions, which she served as executive producer and general manager, supervising a workforce of more than 200.

That Mass.Illusions facility was eventually closed in 1998, when the parent company shifted production work to California, she went on, adding that other shops in that area have closed as well, in part because large production houses are not needed as much as they were years ago.

“You can work on Game of Thrones from your house,” she explained, adding that there a number of sole proprietors and small outfits based in the 413 area code.

Michail Charalampidis

Michail Charalampidis says the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative has enabled him to make invaluable connections as he searches for work within the industry.

And not all of them are in the Berkshires, she went on, adding that the collaborative’s work became more regional in nature— and the words ‘of Western Massachusetts’ were added to the title — years ago.

Today, the collaborative works with a host of partners, including the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., Berkshire Creative, and colleges across the region to grow the film and media sector in the Pioneeer Valley and, in the process, create opportunities for individuals, businesses, and communities like Shelburne.

“We want to keep the dollars in Western Mass.,” said Pearlman, who brings more than 25 years of experience in media creation and production, including work as an independent entertainment producer, studio executive, and business owner.

She came to the Berkshires to work with Trumbull at his studio. Later, at Mass.Illusions, she was involved with a host of films, including The Matrix and What Dreams May Come (both of which won Academy Awards for best visual effects), Starship Troopers, Evita, Eraser, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Judge Dredd, and others. Her résumé also includes everything from work producing television commercials and feature-film title sequences to a stint as production manager for the creation of a web-based health initiative for Canyon Ranch in Lenox, to work as a partner, producer, and lead writer in KinderMuse Entertainment, a developer of children’s and family entertainment.

She is currently producing two independent films, a screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel Summer, written and directed by feature-film art director and production designer Carl Sprague, as well as a film based on a short story by Carson McCullers that is being written and directed by actress Karen Allen.

But the collaborative now demands a good amount of her time, she told BusinessWest, adding that she and others stayed in the Berkshires because of the region’s high quality of life. She believes there are many in that category, and their numbers could swell — if there are solid career opportunities.

Setting the Scene

Pearlman said Massachusetts currently has many things going for it when it comes to being the setting for major motion pictures.

For starters, there’s an attractive 25% tax credit, initiated in 2005, available to those outfits that reach certain production-spending thresholds. There have also been some intriguing Bay State-based stories that Hollywood has decided to tell, including those involving South Boston gangster James (Whitey) Bulger (Black Mass was shot this past summer) and Lowell boxer Mickey Ward (The Fighter was released in 2010), among others.

Meanwhile, some Bay State natives and notable transplants, including Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg, like shooting here, and have brought many major productions to the Boston area.

And then, there’s the Mass. Film Office and its executive director, Lisa Strout, whom Pearlman credits with making the business of shooting films here a fairly smooth and easy process.

However, with a few exceptions, such as The Judge and Labor Day, parts of which were also filmed in Shelburne, the wealth hasn’t been spread equally across the state.

“By 2008, $350 million had been spent in the state, and a bunch of us looked at each other and said, ‘why is it all going to Boston?’” said Pearlman. “We have some great locations and talent … they should be coming here.”

If they did, a number of businesses would benefit, she said, listing everything from hotels to hardware stores; caterers to rental car agencies.

But while bringing more major films, like The Judge, is certainly among the BFMC’s goals, Pearlman said the collaborative wants to attract production work of all kinds, including smaller independent films, special-effects projects, television commercials, fashion shoots, training and promotional videos for businesses, and more.

Achieving that goal is a multi-faceted process, she said, one that includes everything from raising awareness of the talent and locations for shooting in the region to assembling and promoting a talented workforce. The desired effect from such efforts is to bring work to this region rather than have it go elsewhere because people are not aware of the talent and resources available.

“The big films are great, but there are many other aspects to the film and media industry,” said Pearlman. “We want to focus on all of them.”

Meanwhile, Charalampidis, while keeping his options open, is nonetheless setting his sights high.

As he mentioned earlier, he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next month or even next week — a byproduct of working in the field, one further complicated by the fact that he’s in this country on a work visa, one with an expiration date that could be extended, but only if the right opportunity, or opportunities, present themselves.

“I’m getting to the point where I’m going where there’s good and interesting work,” he said, adding that this could be in the Pioneer Valley, New York, Los Angeles, or elsewhere. “I’m past being at the bottom of a very small production, and now I’m going after interesting projects, ones that are educational — and big.”

What he does know is that the collaborative has put him in a better position to possibly seize such opportunities.

“The collaborative can help students get out there faster and move through the low jobs more quickly and then start working for bigger projects that will help them move their career forward faster,” he explained. “You need to come out of college with a lot of skills that colleges just don’t teach you, and the collaborative has certainly helped me in that regard.”

Roll Credits

When asked what it is about Shelburne that is attracting the attention of Hollywood, Pearlman said quickly and succinctly, “it’s a great little town.”

There are many more like it across the region, she said, adding that one of the collaborative’s goals is to acquaint people in the industry with them. To that end, photos of various potential filming sites — everything from parks to farms; churches to college buildings — have been placed on the BFMC’s website.

Overall, though, the collaborative is focused on the big picture — growing this sector, creating jobs, keeping young people in the region, and spurring economic development.

That’s quite a production, but Pearlman and others believe they have a hit in the making. n

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

LENOX — NightWood is back. Once again, the Mount in Lenox will be transformed into a fantastical winter landscape. This year’s show includes several new sound and light elements, including the Eternal City and the Conference of Trees.

An opening-night celebration will be held on Thursday, Nov. 4. Tickets are limited and cost $100 per person, with timed entries at 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m., and 6:30 p.m., followed by bistro fare and craft cocktails under outdoor heaters and twinkling lights. To purchase tickets, click here. All ticket holders will be contacted about dinner menu choices from SoMa Catering.

Due to uneven and stepped terrain, accessibility is limited. NightWood is not wheelchair-accessible.

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