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Community Spotlight: Great Barrington

Great Barrington Gets Creative for Its Own ‘Big Dig’

Christopher Rembold and Jennifer Tabakin

Christopher Rembold and Jennifer Tabakin say construction hasn’t halted plans to transform the former historic Searles High School into a hotel and conference center.

Main Street in downtown Great Barrington has always been an interesting place with lots to do. These days, it still fits that description, but for many more — and quite intriguing — reasons.

A few weeks ago, for example, a crowd of people outfitted in western clothing, including cowboy hats, gathered in front of the coffee shop known as Fuel for what became a Wild West flash-mob gathering.

“Two large hitching posts had been planted in the dirt outside, and two horses, a wagon, and young calves were tied to them as if it was an old western tavern,” recalled Town Planner Christopher Rembold, adding that farmer Stan Stanton, who brought the animals to the site, gave people rides on the horse and buggy, while others enjoyed unlimited coffee on the dusty sidewalk.

Dusty, because the street and its sidewalks have been torn apart as part of a massive reconstruction project on the half-mile stretch of Main Street along which 20,000 to 25,000 vehicles travel each day.

That western-themed gathering was just one of many events and activities drawn up by the town, the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, and individual business owners to maintain vibrancy in a thriving downtown during a project that is long overdue and will yield long-term dividends — but is, at this moment, a huge pain in the neck.

“We’ve taken a proactive approach because we want to make sure our downtown remains vibrant, so we’re working with local businesses to increase the number of activities they offer,” said Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, noting that, collectively, these efforts are part of something called the “placemaking” program (more on that later).

“Main Street is not just a road; it’s a place to be. It’s the cultural and commercial hub for all of Southern Berkshire County, and has become our community common,” said Rembold. “We recognized the construction could be disruptive before it began, so we needed to find a way to keep people coming downtown to gather, shop, and dine.”

But while the ongoing construction work is in many ways dominating day-to-day life downtown, there is much going on beyond those scenes, including progress with redeveloping some of the town’s better-known but long-idle landmarks.

For example, the former St. James Episcopal Church, which marks the southern gateway into town, will be transformed into a cultural performing space. Meanwhile, the former Methodist Church at the northern gateway into town, which had also been vacant for several years, was purchased last year by a local developer who just received the permits needed to renovate it.

And the privately owned former train station, just west of Town Hall, was turned into a dance studio last fall, and last year the former Searles High School was purchased by nationally known Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, whose headquarters are downtown.

“They’re working with local hotel owner Vijay Mahida, who owns the Fairfield Marriott on Stockbridge Road, to turn it into a first-class restaurant and conference facility. We hope to see the plans this summer,” Rembold said. “It will bring additional people downtown, as well as jobs.”

Officials say the combination of placemaking events, historic renovations, and infrastructure work will keep Great Barrington vibrant for the coming months — and the long term as well. For this, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, we look at how the picture will likely come into focus.

The Real Dirt

Rembold said Main Street and its sidewalks have needed to be redone for many years.

“They were in very bad shape. We needed new storm-water drainage and a new natural-gas main, in addition to a complete reconstruction of the road and sidewalks,” he said, adding that town officials began planning for the $6 million project in 2009 when they paid Fuss & O’Neill to design a streetscape plan, which included new lighting and traffic signals. At the same time, they applied for state funding to pay for the initiative.

The actual construction began last July, but wasn’t too disruptive because the road had not been torn up. “But we knew this spring and summer would be difficult for businesses,” Rembold said, adding that, by the end of June, the blacktop will be laid from Castle Street to Elm Street, new traffic lights will be installed, and the sidewalks will also be finished. However, J.H. Maxymillian Inc., the firm handling the project, will not complete the work until December, with final aesthetics finished next spring.

That means several more months of Main Street as a construction site, and thus the need for more creative programming to keep downtown humming.

Knowing such initiatives would be needed, town officials last year hired the so-called Project for Public Spaces to conduct a workshop for elected and appointed leaders, the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, and Lee Bank. “We wanted to find out what they could teach us about what other towns have done during similar construction,” Rembold explained.

The next step was a brainstorming session with local businesses, and since that time, everyone involved has gotten quite creative; even Maxymillian has joined the effort.

“We banned single-use plastic shopping bags last year, so Maxymillian donated 1,000 bright yellow canvas bags with a logo that reads, ‘I Dig GB’ printed beneath the shovel of the arm of a large tractor,” Rembold said.

In an effort to keep people informed, Betsy Andrus, executive director of the chamber, pens a weekly construction update to let people know the status of the project and what Maxymillian, Verizon, and other companies will be doing on a day-by-day basis. Businesses receive notification via e-mail, and the information is posted on the chamber’s website, printed in the Berkshire Record, and read on WSBS radio.

“The town is still functioning, and the police are doing a phenomenal job keeping the traffic moving,” she told BusinessWest. “I drive down Main Street several times each day so I can time how long it takes, and it has never been longer than eight minutes.”

Businesses have also held ‘no sidewalk’ sales; the Farmer’s Market is relocating to a parking lot on Church Street, and the town hopes to stage outdoor movies downtown during the summer.

Another placemaker planned for June 1 involves a collaboration between restaurants that will host a GB Dig and Dine Event. “Picture 200 people dressed in white having an elegant dinner on tables with white tablecloths outside in the midst of the Main Street construction,” said Andrus, adding that the food will be provided by Allium, Castle Street Café, and Prairie Whale restaurants, while unusual, construction-related props will add to the fun.

She added that Barbara Watkins, who owns the Evergreen Fine American Crafts store, has been a lead organizer of the dinner and has gone door-to-door to businesses to generate excitement about the placemaking effort.

The multi-faceted infrastructure work should eventually make downtown Great Barrington an even better place to do business, for both existing ventures and several new concepts that will soon take shape in those aforementioned landmarks.

The former St. James Church, for example, sat empty for four or five years and was slated for demolition until Fred and Sally Harris purchased it to prevent that action. The town provided them with $150,000 of Community Preservation Act funding to support their $7 million investment, and the building is scheduled to open next spring and become a venue for concerts, lectures, and more. The first floor, Rembold noted, was attractively renovated to house a food pantry.

At the former Methodist Church, the developer has plans to place an 80-seat restaurant in the historic building, which Rembold described as “critical to Great Barrington’s identity.”

Progress is also being made at the former Leeds Cleaners. It is privately owned, but the town secured funding from MassDevelopment to conduct environmental testing to determine the cost of any contamination cleanup. “It’s been vacant for years, and there has been a lot of interest in it because it’s in an ideal location,” Tabakin said, adding the study results should help to make it more marketable.

In addition to these development initiatives, a number of new activities and programs are intended to bring people downtown and create more momentum for the central business district.

Paint the Town, for example, taking place at the end of July, will give people the opportunity to take painting classes at three or four outdoor locations. “Several organizations have donated easels, artists are donating their time, and we’re working with the stores to donate cookies and lemonade,” Andrus told BusinessWest. “They really understand it’s time to team up and work together.”

Another initiative, dubbed Decorate and Shade, is aimed at recreating the shade that was lost when the trees on Main Street were ripped up. New ones will be planted, but since they will take time to grow, businesses can purchase large planters shaded by 9-foot umbrellas and set chairs around them. “We’re encouraging them to be creative and use the planters to hold signs, flags, or balloons,” Andrus said.

Digging It

Despite all of the placemaking events and activity, it has not been easy for businesses to contend with the traffic backups and construction. However, some, including Alan Kalish, who manages the Vault Gallery, see it as an opportunity for growth. “We’ve doubled our space in the last two months. The town will be so beautiful when the work is done that we will get more tourists than ever before,” he said. “The construction gave us the impetus to want to do more business.”

Rembold said the investments and the collaborations taking place are significant and bode well for the future.

“Great Barrington may be small, but there is a lot happening,” he noted. “Everything here is getting better, and our downtown is being transformed.”

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,003 (2012)
Area: 45.2 square miles

County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $13.72
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.72
Median Household Income: $50,882 (2012)
Family Household Income: $75,508 (2012)
Type of government: Open town meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Prairie Whale; Kutscher’s Sports Academy
* Latest information available

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