By Mark Morris
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.
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.”