Great Barrington Is Taking Big Steps Forward
Jennifer Tabakin acknowledged that, figuratively speaking, at least, City Hall in New York and Town Hall in Great Barrington are much more than 125 or so miles apart.
In most all ways, they’re worlds apart, and she should know, because she’s worked in both settings, and is firmly entrenched in the latter as town manager.
In New York, she worked for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg for several years. To be more specific, she worked under the deputy mayor for Economic Development after a stint in state government with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority working on capital projects.
“I did construction and operation coordination in lower Manhattan, and worked on parks, waterfront parks, and other projects in the Bronx, as well as being a general policy advisor,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while she greatly enjoyed that work, she decided to leave Manhattan for a different kind of challenge, that of managing a small community — and a much different kind of lifestyle — in the summer of 2013.
“From my perspective, being able to have a career first in city government and then transitioning to local government in a town has been a great opportunity to add another chapter to a very interesting career,” she explained, adding that she chose Great Barrington for this transition, as she called it, for several reasons.
For starters, she was familiar with it — her parents have long lived in nearby Lenox — and she admired its mix of rural beauty and a bustling downtown and vibrant arts scene. But there was more, in the category of professional challenges.
“It had a diversity of really interesting projects and issues, and an engaged and active community,” she noted. “It had enough challenges so that I thought it was a great place to be a town manager.”
And while she acknowledged the many differences between Gotham and the region within the Berkshires known as South County, she said that, overall, the basic principles of economic development are pretty much the same in both settings — primarily, it comes down to making the community in question a better one in which to live, work, play, and start a business, and using public investments to do all that and spur private investment.
Tabakin said she saw that formula work in New York, and she’s seeing it bring progress in Great Barrington, as well. Indeed, a number of public investments, including a huge reconstruction project in the city’s already-thriving downtown as well as road upgrades, two bridge-reconstruction initiatives, and upgrades to the wastewater-treatment plant, have coincided with, and in many ways inspired, a host of private investments.
These have come in many forms, including new restaurants — the town now boasts more than 77 of them — additional housing developments, mixed-use projects, and a host of arts-focused initiatives.
At or certainly near the top of that list is an ambitious undertaking known as St. James Place. Opened in 2017 as a home to small and mid-sized Berkshire County arts groups in need of performance, rehearsal, and office space, it was, as the name suggests, created out of the historic St. James Episcopal Church on Main Street by Sally and Fred Harris, parishioners who wanted to do something to preserve the deteriorating landmark.
Today, billing itself as “a place for art,” this facility is living up to both that tagline and its significant promise as a setting for many forms of artistic expression.
It recently hosted an intriguing seminar called “Close Encounters with Music: The Politics of Opera,” and on Dec. 9 it will host a performance of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus. Later next month, it will be home to the Great Barrington Holiday Arts Market and a performance by the group Crescendo called “Three Wise Kings Follow a Star.”
SEE: Great Barrington at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104 (0000)
Area: 45.8 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $14.60
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.60
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Dialysis Center; Fairview Hospital; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available
Meanwhile, several of the office spaces for lease have been filled by arts-related groups such the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Flying Cloud, and the Berkshire Opera, and the facility is home to the People’s Pantry.
“The idea is to have a place that supports the community, and we do that in a number of ways,” said Fred Harris, adding that the nonprofit, like most, operates as a business would and is making strides it its efforts to be successful economically.
There are many other inspiring stories like the one that has unfolded at St. James Place, said Tabakin, adding that, while there are many issues to contend with, including an aging population, there is a great deal of momentum and positive energy in this jewel of southern Berkshire County.
Getting back to the circumstances that brought her and her family to Great Barrington, Tabakin said familiarity and quality of life were certainly big factors. But there was also that chance to put the considerable experience she accumulated in New York to work addressing an intriguing set of issues and challenges that sold her on the job she’s now in.
“It’s extremely busy and its very active,” she said of the community. “But there’s an enormous amount of interesting projects and land-use issues and policy issues, and budget issues … there was and is a lot going on.”
Indeed, while there are many priorities, one of the biggest is attracting more young families to the community. Like other towns in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties, Great Barrington has seen the average age of its residents rise in recent years, said Tabakin, noting that the community has always been a popular spot for retirees, and there are a number of New Yorkers with second (usually summer) homes in town.
But unlike many other communities, Great Barrington seems to be making great strides in attracting young people and especially young families, she went on, adding that it has many of the necessary ingredients, including attractive housing, quality schools, a vibrant downtown, a burgeoning cultural community, outdoor activities, and more.
Including perhaps that most important ingredient: jobs. They come in a number of sectors, including education (Simons Rock of Bard College is located within the town); healthcare (Fairview Hospital); technology (perhaps a dozen IT companies call the town home); the arts and tourism, the nonprofit community, and even special effects — there are a few such studios located in Great Barrington.
“Over the past several years, we’ve seen more young people move to certain areas of town,” she explained. “It’s observable, and there are reasons for it; we did a renovation of a new playground, we have cultural events that appeal to different generations, and we have a lot of people moving here who are committed to the school system.”
The opportunity to work with a broad team of officials to build this portfolio of attractive qualities is big part of what brought Tabakin to South County, and she noted that there are some new chapters to the story being written.
They include a project to build a new home for the Berkshire Co-op on Bridge Street, new construction that will also include space for smaller retail outlets, said Tabakin, adding that the co-op’s current location will be razed to make room for a condominium project. Overall, this project will achieve a number of ends.
“What this will do is open up the entirety of Bridge Street to additional development,” she explained. “And it’s adjacent to Berkshire Community College’s South County campus, an area that has already seen a lot of activity, so that’s exciting. And this will help us maintain a mixed downtown, where you have residential, working places, shops, and restaurants.”
Also in the works is an ambitious project in the village of Housatonic, an old mill town within Great Barrington populated by art galleries and people who have stayed there long after the mills closed.
The town had issued an RFP for redevelopment of the century-old elementary school in Housatonic, said Tabakin, and a local group of partners has come forward and is now working on the planning phase for the project. Preliminary plans call for business-incubator space and some commercial space on the first floor and apartments on the second floor.
As for St. James Place, Harris said the facility is, as he noted, making great strides toward meeting its broad mission and breaking even financially.
While doing so, it has become an important component — one of many, actually — in an emerging story of a community now hitting a lot of high notes, both figuratively, but also (especially in the historic church building) quite literally.
“The town has a great deal of depth,” said Harris. “And it has a great audience base, and it has more than enough vitality to attract people. There are a lot of good things happening here.”
Looking back on what has transpired since she arrived as town manager, Tabakin said that, beyond the new developments, restaurants, and capital projects, maybe her biggest accomplishment has been to inspire others to get involved with the community and be part of the many forms of progress taking place.
Indeed, there has been plenty to get involved with, including everything from ‘green’ initiatives such as a ban on plastic bags and sustainable-energy initiatives to work in the schools, neighborhoods, and amply green spaces the town works diligently to preserve.
“One of the things I’ve done is to share my passion for local government, and I’ve gotten a group of people enthusiastic about being involved,” she told BusinessWest. “And I’m proud of it, because it’s so critically important at this period of time that we all do what we can to make sure we’re actively participating in making our place, our home, our community a wonderful place to live.
“It’s a wonderful learning opportunity and brings people together,” she said of this heightened involvement. “And from that, we’ve been able to accomplish a lot and serve as a model for other places.”
And while a great deal has been accomplished, there is a general sense that, that when it comes to forward progress, this community is just getting started.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]