Community Profile: Stockbridge
Tourism, Nostalgia Help Stockbridge ThriveIt’s been called the most famous Main Street in America.
And there is little disputing that Stockbridge’s main thoroughfare has earned that distinction. It was cinched in the years and decades after the town’s most famous resident, Norman Rockwell, made it famous in his “Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas” painting, created in 1967.
“If people want to experience that classic New England Christmas, then Stockbridge is the place to do it,” said Stephanie Gravalese-Wood, marketing and communications manager for both the Red Lion Inn and the Porches Inn at MassMoCA in North Adams.
Indeed, that classic experience comes to life annually in a weekend event that takes the same name as the Rockwell painting and celebrates both the artist and the holidays through various family-friendly activities. This year’s 24th edition of the event, slated for Dec. 6-8, will include holiday readings, festive home tours, caroling, a luminaria walk, and the sold-out holiday concert at the First Congregational Church. All events lead to the weekend highlight: the closing of Main Street to recreate Rockwell’s scene, complete with 50 antique cars.
Michele Kotek, innkeeper for the Red Lion Inn, has also been involved with the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce for the past several years; currently she is president of the board. She told BusinessWest that the annual event was launched to help invigorate the holiday season in Stockbridge, and the success is evident, especially for the Red Lion, which is sold out for that weekend a year in advance.
“We [the chamber] have obviously perfected the event, and if you are at all ‘bah, humbug,’ come to Stockbridge and see,” said Kotek, adding that, while the community isn’t shy about celebrating its past, this is definitely not a town where time stands still.
Indeed, the community — as well as those charged with promoting it — are in some ways changing with the times, said Barbara Zanetti, long-time director of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, noting that everything from a recently updated chamber website to mobile apps are being used by the chamber and specific venues to make a number of audiences, and especially the younger generations, aware of all that Stockbridge offers.
However, ever-advancing technology brings challenges along with opportunities. And one of those challenges is cell-phone coverage and GPS identity, said Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden, noting that dead zones are common and GPS searches for many Stockbridge addresses lead to the wrong locations (more on this later).
But despite these difficulties, people are finding Stockbridge, in both a literal and figurative sense, said Jeremy Clowe, manager of Media Services for the Norman Rockwell Museum, where that famous painting of Main Street hangs, along with hundreds of others.
“People want to experience American history and values, and even the name ‘Norman Rockwell’ has become an adjective, as in ‘a Norman Rockwell moment,’” he said, noting that the artist’s work — and the town in general — resonates with younger audiences, and with people from across the country and around the world. “That’s what a lot of people are looking for when they come here.”
For this latest installment of its Community Profile series, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on Stockbridge, where tourism is the main economic driver, and nostalgia has long been the main ingredient in a recipe for success.
Zanetti said that, while most everyone knows that the official address for Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937, carries a Lenox zip code, far fewer know that perhaps 90% of the property is in Stockbridge.
And she and others in the community are not shy about reminding people of that.
“In some of the advertisements for Tanglewood, they’re now saying ‘between Stockbridge and Lenox,’ but we do like to get our name in there for sure,” said Marsden, who has worked for the town since 1985. She noted that Tanglewood — in whatever town people believe it’s in — is one of many venues in the Berkshires that make the area a truly regional attraction, with Stockbridge being a key part of that equation.
And the regional approach is certainly one of the strategic approaches being used by those charged with promoting the community and stimulating tourist activity, said Zanetti, adding that Stockbridge, like Lenox, Great Barrington, Lee, and other communities, certainly benefits from its proximity to other popular locations and the large number of true destinations within an hour of each other.
But Stockbridge itself has long been a major draw, said Zanetti, noting that the museum, Main Street, the Red Lion Inn, and, yes, Tanglewood are some of the many attractions that help bring up to 25,000 people to the town (population: 2,000) in the summer and fall.
And these visitors have helped keep Main Street and its small commercial district — just a few blocks in size — thriving, said Marsden. “Tourism continues to thrive in our small business area, and the few times a storefront has gone empty, it hasn’t stayed empty for long.”
Rockwell and the values ever present in his work play a huge role in the town’s vibrancy, said Clowe, noting that the license plates in the museum parking lot are from all over the country, not just Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, and there are bus tours bringing people from China, Japan, France, and other countries as well.
But while Rockwell still seems to resonate with all generations, it doesn’t hurt to have much more to offer the younger audiences, said those we spoke with, and the regional aspect of Berkshires tourism has been part of this equation.
Tanglewood has added popular talent that is drawing a much younger audience over the past several years, said Clowe, adding that the Solid Sound music series at MassMoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Adams, featuring such bands as Wilco, has also brought more young people to the Berkshires — and to Stockbridge.
“I think it’s been some of these initiatives that have been really creative that are helping to get our name on the map,” he said. “People don’t always know where this [the Rockwell museum] is, but we’ve found new ways to market ourselves online and with mobile apps, and maybe it’s a combination of all these things making the younger generations aware.”
Overall, the younger generations are “a different type of person and traveler,” said Zanetti, adding that that individual destinations must adapt and create programming that will appeal to such audiences.
Clowe concurred, and cited, as one example, a recent exhibit at the Rockwell museum — “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic,” which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the famous film. On display from early June until the end of October, the successful exhibit evolved from the personal friendship between Rockwell and Walt Disney and has drawn Disney fans of all ages from across the country.
“Everyone has to work harder and keep things fresh,” said Clowe, adding that, by doing so, Stockbridge and its individual attractions can make nostalgia just one of many selling points.
Marsden told BusinessWest that Stockbridge’s problems with cell-phone dead zones (including some stretches of that famous Main Street) and GPS identity are real and somewhat frustrating, although carriers are looking to perhaps add another tower.
“I think it’s just a matter of time,” she said. “We’re continuing to talk to Verizon and AT&T and pushing for that cell service. While we may have a small year-round population, we’re a tourism destination, and our population swells, and for the people that travel here, we really need that cell service.”
But while it waits for that service to improve, Stockbridge will continue to focus on what enabled visitors of all ages to find — and eventually cherish — this community long before anyone knew what the acronym GPS stood for.
“A visit to Stockbridge and the Red Lion Inn is the classic New England experience,” said Gravalese-Wood. “And sometimes innovation is just keeping things the way they are.”
Stockbridge has continued to prove that point for more than a half-century now.
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]