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Berkshire County Special Coverage

Walking the Walk

Mindy Miraglia was inspired to launch Berkshire Camino by her treks in Northern Spain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided many individuals with the motivation, opportunity, and time to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. That’s certainly been the case in the Berkshires, where new ventures launched, or set to be launched, include a new brewery, a guided-hikes venture, and a treasure-hunt concept that introduces consumers to area businesses.

Like most of those people who find themselves walking the Camino de Santiago — the pilgrim trail (actually, several different trails) that end at the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela — Mindy Miraglia was at a crossroads in her life.

Indeed, after many years in advertising and market research, subsequent burnout, and some time working at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health that didn’t end well, she was trying to figure out what could — and should — come next for her.

So, like hundreds of thousands of people each year, she decided to walk the Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, to pause, reflect, and maybe, just maybe, find an answer to her question. And as she tells the story, the Camino — and, specifically, her experiences on the 250-mile trek across Northern Spain — became the answer.

Sort of. Let’s just say it’s a work or progress. Or a business in progress.

It’s called Berkshire Camino LLC, which specializes in guided hikes through the Berkshires, many of which take people from community to community and are thus patterned after what Miraglia experienced in Spain on her two treks on the Camino.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change.”

But that was not the original plan. Instead, she wanted to create hostels — the lower-cost, dorm-like hotels that are an important part of the Camino experience — in the Berkshires and thus bring a different type of accommodation for tourists to that market. But reality, in the form of skyrocketing real-estate prices, as well as a lack of capital and few options for obtaining it, has kept that dream in check — at least for now.

But Miraglia, at the advice of mentors assigned to her by the nonprofit EforAll Berkshires, has pivoted and now leads a number of guided hikes within the Berkshires through a venture that is not yet profitable but showing some forms of promise.

Overall, she can find countless ways, and phrases, to compare the rugged challenge that is the Camino to that of starting and growing a business.

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real found the inspiration, and the time, to launch Hot Plate Brewing during the first year of the pandemic.

“It’s a hero’s journey,” she said of the trek in Spain, but also entrepreneurship. “You put yourself onto that path, and you have to overcome challenges and see who you are.”

Miraglia is part of what many are calling a surge in entrepreneurship in the Berkshires, one fueled in part by the pandemic, which left many out of work and looking to start their own business. It left others wanting to leave the city and head for far more rural areas — and, again, start their own business. For still others, the pandemic triggered imaginative ideas for ways to get people out and about, and generate revenue while doing so.

Mike Dell’Aquila and his wife, Sara Real, don’t fit neatly into any of those categories, but in some ways, they encompass all three. They left their condo in Brooklyn for a home in Lenox in July, and are advancing plans to launch Hot Plate Brewing Co. in Pittsfield.

As with all breweries, there’s a story behind the name; in this case, the couple lost gas service in their condo for a period of time just as they were getting serious about transforming this from a hobby to a business. So they famously bought a hotplate so they could continue honing their craft.

There’s more to this story than the name, though, said Dell’Aquila, adding that the pandemic certainly helped provide the motivation — and the time — to take their dream, which has been, well, brewing since 2018, off the drawing board.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he and Real were both working day jobs, from home, during the pandemic. Motivated by this ‘sign’ from above, they used the extra hour and half they gained each day from not commuting, as well as Zoom technology, to advance their concept.

They are closing in on a location for their venture and plan to start brewing beer by early next year.

As for Liam Gorman, the pandemic certainly helped inspire his venture, CozQuest, which he bills as “the new way to explore the Berkshires.” It’s a local treasure hunt, as he called it, one that connects consumers and businesses “through their love of community and adventure.”

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do. We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

Using their phones, players solve a puzzle, follow a map, and find and scan a QR code to win a prize from a local business. If a player finds all the prizes, he or she can win some cash. German has created a number of these hunts, in cities and attractions such as Hancock Shaker Village and MASS MoCA, and says the business has developed a loyal following among both players and sponsoring businesses. His plan is to expand the concept and perhaps take it to other markets.

These entrepreneurs and many others are part of an emerging story in the Berkshires. It’s about people finding entrepreneurial energy during the pandemic — and finding ways to harness it.

 

It’s No Walk in the Park

As she goes about trying to grow her venture, Miraglia says there are times when she will actually tell herself that she’s “on the Camino.”

By that, she meant she’s on an arduous journey, one where you’re just trying to get to the next day and really don’t know what’s around the next bend.

“It’s hard,” she said, using that phrase to describe both the Camino and entrepreneurship, which has tested her in every way imaginable.

Indeed, while her concept has drawn interest from adventure seekers across the country and even other countries — not to mention a significant amount of press locally — there have been countless challenges to overcome. These include everything from the weather, which has canceled many hikes, to lingering anxiety about gathering in, or even walking in, large groups, to lingering anxiety about how to generate revenue in the winter months.

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children, believes he’s found a scalable venture in CozQuest.

“I’ve had to refund 15% of my deposits so far because of the weather,” said Miraglia as she referenced a spring and summer of almost incessant rain, adding that these seasons have been challenging enough; winter is a matter that will be decided another day.

Meanwhile, Dell’Aquila, while obviously confident and enthusiastic about his venture, was quite candid about his leap from a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

“It’s definitely terrifying,” he noted. “I vacillate from being super-excited to being super-scared.”

By all accounts, there are more people experiencing these mood swings in the Berkshires these days.

Deb Gallant, executive director of EforAll Berkshire, told BusinessWest that the agency, part of a larger, statewide network that also includes an office in Holyoke, staged its first accelerator program just before COVID-19 arrived in the winter of 2020; it had eight participating businesses. The agency then saw a considerable uptick in applications for the next few cohorts, at the height of COVID, and for all the reasons mentioned above.

“We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

“A lot of people were unemployed, especially those in hospitality,” she explained, noting that many large employers in that sector, such as Canyon Ranch, Kripalu, and others, shut down or curtailed operations. “We had a huge uptick in applications for the next two cohorts.”

The number of applications declined somewhat for the upcoming fall cohort, which she attributes to improved stability at many of those businesses that had shut down partially or completely during the pandemic. But the agency will still have a large cohort, said Gallant, adding there is still a good amount of entrepreneurial activity in this region, which has been reinventing itself for the past 30 years from an economy dominated by manufacturing, and especially General Electric’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, to one that is far more diverse and driven in many ways by tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Jonathan Butler, executive director of 1Berkshire, a multi-faceted economic-development agency, agreed.

From the early days of the pandemic, he noted, he could sense that, while COVID would bring a wide range of challenges to the region, it would also provide some opportunities for the Berkshires as well.

They have come in all forms, he went on, from professionals relocating to the area from urban centers, a migration certainly helped by the growing success of remote working and one that is prompting population growth in cities and towns that have needed such a surge, to an unparalleled explosion in the real-estate market, which has created opportunities and challenges of its own.

And, as noted, COVID has prompted a surge in entrepreneurship, said Butler, adding that it involves both new owners of businesses that failed during the pandemic — there were many, especially in the broad hospitality realm — and a wide range of new businesses as well, many of them fueled by an even greater interest in visiting the area and taking in many types of attractions.

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do,” he explained. “We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

 

Something’s Brewing

For Dell’Aquila, it wasn’t really a matter of whether he and Real would launch their brewery operation. The questions were when and where they would launch.

And COVID helped answer both, but especially the former, he said, adding that it provided the time and impetus to move ahead with their plans. “We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

Now, he and Real are home brewers with firm plans and, hopefully, a location. They are finalizing commitments for investing in their venture from friends and family, exploring possible incentives from local and state sources, and meeting with architects to finalize blueprints for their operation. They also have a slot in the next accelerator cohort for EforAll Berkshire, during which they hope to gain both a better understanding of the local business landscape and garner more feedback and mentoring on their plans and their brand, which they believe will be a solid addition to the local craft-beer landscape.

He said he and Real will bring what he called a “culinary approach” to brewing, with such as offerings as a chamomile-infused blonde ale and a Jalapeno pale ale, in addition to more traditional stalwarts such as Belgian-style farmhouse beers, some classic American pale ales, and an IPA.

Dell’Aquila acknowledged that the Berkshires were already home to a number of solid craft-beer labels, but there is room for more — and more, in his view, creates opportunities for both himself and others.

Indeed, with Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams, Shire Breu-Hous in Dalton, and others, the addition of Hot Plate in Pittsfield boosts the potential for what Dell’Aquila called a “beer trail” from the southern part of the county to the northern region.

“One of the things we found when we were really digging in is that there is a lot of excitement and desire for craft beer,” he explained. “And adding more options will only help; to me, density is a good thing.”

While Hot Plate is preparing to launch, CozQuest is looking to build on a solid first year and explore a number of possible growth opportunities, said Gorman, who brings a varied background to his venture. Originally in journalism, he moved to Los Angeles and ventured into television.

After relocating to the Berkshires five years ago in a search for a more stable environment in which to raise children, he became part-owner of the bar Thistle and Mirth and helped reverse its sagging fortunes. He sold his share just prior to COVID’s arrival in the region, and used some of that windfall to start CozQuest, which is in many ways inspired by geocaching, a type of global treasure hunt where seekers use GPS devices to find hidden caches.

“The engagement level has been pretty high; I like to call CozQuest a foot-traffic-building machine,” he told BusinessWest. “It brings people to places they might otherwise not have known about to discover and explore.”

German was a participant in the spring cohort of 2020, and said the experience of working with mentors and other local business owners gave him the confidence to move ahead with the concept, which is currently in what he calls phase 1, where he’s honing the concept and gauging its revenue potential.

The plan is to scale up in all ways, starting with the website, which he built himself. “It looks like someone’s first website, but … it works,” he said, adding that his ultimate goal is to take the concept to other markets.

As for Miraglia, her first 14 months in business have been a learning experience on many levels.

As noted earlier, she did a hard pivot, from hostels to guided hikes, thanks to input from mentors and what she called a “reckoning with reality” when it came to the costs and other challenges or making those hostels reality.

After pivoting and focusing on hikes, she did some proof-of-concept testing in the late summer of 2020, often giving away her product away as she did so. She found that there is promise, but likely more refinement of the business model as she gains more evidence concerning what will sell and generate profits.

Indeed, she’s learned there is considerable interest in private hikes — small groups and even one person going where they want to go and not necessarily on a pre-set course.

As she noted, there have been many challenges and hurdles for this venture. She started it too late to qualify for any PPP money, and has wound up bootstrapping the operation herself, drawing down a retirement fund to do so.

“As a for-profit venture, grant opportunities are scarce,” she said. “I joke that Joe Biden has invested in Berkshire Camino since I’ve invested the pandemic aid that I received as a citizen into the business. He’s welcome to come on a hike with us at no charge.

“My aim is to establish a solid baseline in 2021 that I can use to demonstrate to a lender or investor that this has viability,” she went on, adding that the business is not yet profitable and she is not drawing a salary. “I learned from walking the Camino de Santiago that the journey is long and you take one step at a time, stay present and flexible. Just like in business.”

 

The Finish Line

Miraglia didn’t finish the Camino on her second trek in 2019. She had completed roughly 250 of the 500 miles before she injured herself and was forced to eventually call a halt, pack up, and head home.

She remembers exactly where she had to call it quits, and has plans to go back to back there — 2024, when she turns 60, is the current goal — and finish the walk the Santiago de Compostela.

Between now and then? She has more immediate goals and dreams, especially to take the venture she started to stability and profitability. She is not at all sure she will get there — the road ahead is paved with question marks and uncertainty.

As it is for all entrepreneurs. There are more of them in the Berkshires these days, by many accounts. They’ve launched ventures that have been inspired by, accelerated by, or facilitated by the pandemic — which has provided the time and opportunity to reflect and, and in these cases, move a dream to reality.

 

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

Berkshire County

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]

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.”

Berkshire County

Culture Shock

Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August

It took plenty of creativity — in the set design and elsewhere — but Berkshire Theatre Group managed to present a musical in August when no one else could.

For the folks at Berkshire Theatre Group, things were going according to plan.

A three-year sustainability plan, to be specific, developed back in 2018, said Nick Paleologos, the organization’s executive director.

“We had a checklist of things we needed to do in addition to putting on a decent artistic season in 2019, and we hit a lot of goals. As we hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

Versions of that story have been told countless times not only in Massachusetts, but around the country and the world. But for the performing arts, it’s been a particularly tough stretch.

“Starting around St. Patrick’s Day, all we were doing was canceling shows and returning money; we were really in a kind of freefall,” Paleologos continued. “What initially saved us in the short term, and bought us time to figure out how to reimagine our 2020 season, was the Paycheck Protection Program. That was a lifeline, and it accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do — it allowed us to stay in business for those crucial eight weeks in the spring.”

The 2020 season — the BTG was planning eight shows in its three indoor spaces in Stockbridge and Pittsfield — was certainly about to change. “All of a sudden, we had no idea whether we’d be allowed to perform at all,” he noted.

The journey that followed, culminating in live, outdoor performances of Godspell in August and September (more on that later), was a remarkable one, but it’s hardly the robust schedule the venerable company normally puts on. Meanwhile, performing-arts destinations like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood canceled their live slates completely.

It’s a story that affects more than arts patrons; it impacts no less than the entire Berkshires economy, which is so intertwined with, and dependent on, culture and tourism.

Nick Paleologos

Nick Paleologos

“We hit 2020, we had just two or three outstanding boxes left unchecked, when all of a sudden, in mid-March, our world was turned upside down.”

“The visitor economy is definitely a backbone sector for us; it supports a tremendous amount of dollars in the region,” said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the multi-faceted agency that focuses on tourism, economic development, and business retention in Massachusetts’ westernmost county.

In fact, he noted, visitor dollars spent in the region over the years are approaching the $1 billion mark — and the presence of cultural attractions and other tourist destinations, from restaurants to ski resorts, is a major quality-of-life factor in business owners wanting to set up shop here.

“We were pretty heavily involved in the state’s reopening process — we played a key role in getting some of the museums open and fleshing out guidelines for hotels and restaurants,” Butler told BusinessWest, while 1Berkshire’s website has become an oft-updated clearinghouse of information on the region and its public-health response to COVID-19.

Due to belt-tightening everywhere, including among its strategic partners, 1Berkshire hasn’t operated with the same marketing budget it normally would. “But we have been able to raise enough money to do some things, and we’ve pivoted to a vision of the Berkshires that talks a lot about outdoor recreation, and about our museums and hotel properties that have been able to open.

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city,” he went on. “We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors. And, honestly, we’re feeling better than we were two or three months ago.”

A few success stories will do that, but stakeholders in the region are certainly hoping 2021 looks a lot different than 2020.

Out and About

Take, for example, Bousquet Mountain, which recently hired a new general manager and announced a series of renovations, including a new summit-to-base triple chairlift and a revamped snow-making system with more than 25 new snow guns, as well as new grooming equipment and a new, more accessible beginner area.

In addition, Pittsfield native and two-time Olympian Krista Schmidinger will partner with Bousquet to further the site’s youth programming, contributing to the Race Club and SnowSports School and assisting with race and school-program design, instruction, and one-on-one opportunities for young skiers. All this speaks to a resort expecting a busy season, even in the midst of COVID-19.

As for Berkshire Theatre Group, it had to fight to get a live production staged — a fight marked by creativity, not animosity. In short, the Actors Equity Assoc. wasn’t allowing any of its 59,000 unionized members to work in 2020 unless the safety of the actors could be assured.

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“We’re talking about the Berkshires as an escape from the city. We’ve been trying to tell the story of the Berkshires as a place people can escape to and enjoy the outdoors.”

“We’re an Equity company, so that puts a little crimp in our plans,” Paleologos said. To stage Godspell, Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire developed a 60-page manual with detailed safety protocols, including quarantining, physical distancing, and regular coronavirus testing for actors. The actors were to be kept six feet apart at all times — 10 feet when singing — with this spacing and plexiglass dividers incorporated into the set design itself.

Maguire was denied at first, “but she was relentless,” Paleologos said. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

When the company and the union finally struck a deal, BTG became the only company in the entire country performing or rehearsing a musical — a major success, he noted, considering that, just weeks earlier, no one knew whether they’d have a live theater season at all, and most companies nationwide didn’t attempt one, moving instead to virtual performances only.

Meanwhile, many patrons of canceled BTG shows exchanged their tickets for future credits or donated the tickets back as contributions, as a show of support for a company — and an industry — so important to locals.

“This is not a sustainable model going forward, performing under a tent for 50 people,” Paleologos said. “But it was a miraculous success story that was totally unexpected. Our goal was just to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal moment in Berkshire County.”

It’s not the only such beacon.

“It’s too soon to gauge anything in the quantitative sense, but from what I’ve heard anecdotally, in conversations with different sectors in the visitor economy, those that have reopened have done all right,” Butler said. “A lot have changed their model — some hotels have a three-night minimum because of the cleaning expenses of turning over a room, and some businesses are closed a day or two a week to focus on cleaning and sanitizing.”

Last week, Main Street Hospitality Group, which operates several hotels in the region, announced the hiring of a COVID compliance officer, or CCO, who makes monthly visits to each hotel for routine inspections and engagement with staff and leadership. A board-certified physician, the officer strictly adheres to mandates from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and stays informed on the latest public-health advancements in order to advise on any necessary changes to the hotels’ protocols and procedures.

“In addition to several months of strategic planning that led to our initial creation of safeguards, it is equally important to continue evaluating our health and safety practices with the CCO’s help and expertise,” said Sarah Eustis, Main Street’s CEO. “A trusted editor was needed to process the ever-changing breadth of information out there.”

Meanwhile, the hotel group has also partnered with Blue Canary, a company that trains hotels in hospital-level cleaning methods and conducts regular check-ins. Main Street’s housekeeping leaders participated in three days of intensive sessions that focused on best practices and heightened awareness. Attendants were trained in techniques that include longer cleaning times, stronger disinfectants, new cleaning tools, and identifying critical, high-touch areas that require the most attention to ensure guest health and safety.

“This new reality has impacted our housekeeping teams in a huge way,” Eustis said. “Main Street Hospitality is committed to staying at the forefront of this.”

Restaurants have had barriers to overcome as well, Butler said, especially those that depend on visitor traffic at other area attractions. “Some have been able to pivot and focus on a delivery and takeout model, while others haven’t made the transition as seamlessly, and many don’t have the square footage inside to sit too many, and if they’re not able to adapt some outdoor seats, it can be challenging.”

The soon-to-arrive colder weather will force many eateries to become more creative until the state lifts restrictions on indoor capacity — and patrons feel safe enough to eat indoors.

“We certainly understand some businesses will have to make more permanent decisions about their fate. And some businesses, unfortunately, won’t make it to the other side of this,” Butler said. “But the outdoor recreation scene has been very busy — it’s flourishing this summer, and that will continue into the fall.”

Lessons Learned

Paleologos told BusinessWest that banks did a good job easing loan terms for cultural organizations and other nonprofits in the spring, and argues that the next step would be a permanent shift in that direction.

Writing this month in Berkshire Trade & Commerce, he cited a study in Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, an economic-development plan for Berkshire County, showing that jobs in the creative industry grew at a faster pace than in any of the other sectors examined.

“In other words, cultural nonprofits are absolutely central to the Berkshire brand,” he wrote. “The profitability of other commercial industries depends heavily on the success of this county’s theatres, museums, music, and dance companies. Creating new and innovative financial products that contribute to the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit sector must become a top priority for local banks. As an example, sufficiently collateralized operating loans to nonprofits must be offered at the most favorable rates — not the least.”

Meanwhile, Butler added, bringing visitor traffic back to 2019 levels will depend largely on people’s confidence regarding safety, and the public-health metrics on that front have been very good in the Berkshires. “We’re optimistic that will continue and we’ll come out in a stronger place at the end of this.”

That said, there certainly has been a visitor footprint in the Berkshires this year, he went on.

“We won’t have hard data until 2021, and I’m certain it’s going to be down — we don’t have a lot of the key economic drivers, like Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood. But on the plus side, we’ve seen a lot of visitation from Eastern Mass.; they see us as the rural side of the state. We’ve had a lot of visitors from Connecticut and New York. Second homeowners have been living here since March, making their Berkshire residence more permanent during the pandemic. All those dollars circulate back into the local economy, which is a good thing.”

Any forward momentum is welcome, Paleologos added. But so much still remains in flux.

“We can’t guarantee, by the time we get to next summer, we’ll be in a situation where we’ll be able to have shows indoors again,” he said. “The good news is, having had this experience, being able to find a way to do it outdoors, maybe we could incorporate a hybrid model, under tents and indoors. A lot is up in the air at this point, depending on how fast a reliable vaccine comes on the market and how much public confidence there is at its safety and efficacy.”

He noted that the theater business goes back to an amphitheater cut into the hillside at the Parthenon 2,500 years ago — and likely before that.

“From then up to now, the bedrock of our business is people coming together in a single place to have a shared experience and to learn a little bit about what it is to be a human being,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

That’s what the Berkshires do, too, bringing people together every year for an array of activities, many of which have been curtailed in this year of COVID-19.

But the show will go on, eventually — with or without plexiglass.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

When Margaret Kerswill talks about her favorite part of the town of Stockbridge, she doesn’t mention a restaurant or the relatively low property-tax rate — she talks about the positive vibe and sense of community in town.

Although Kerswill’s favorite local shop is undoubtably Mutability in Motion, a store she owns with wife Laureen Vizza that sells crafts from more than 50 artisans in the U.S., the first thing she mentioned was the culture of the town.

“That’s the absolute joy of Stockbridge itself,” she said. “You see it in every aspect of Stockbridge, whether you’re just out and about for your daily activities like going to the post office. Doing those normal, daily things, you bump into people all over the place.”

And Kerswill experiences this sense of community in more ways than one. As president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, she regularly attends meetings and finds that several town residents show up consistently, contradicting the typical stereotype for chambers of commerce.

“It’s a great force in the town,” she said. “The more members we have, the more feedback we get, and the more people who can take part in town meetings. It gives us a bigger voice, and it helps us when we come at this as a collective rather than trying to do all the same things, but as individuals.”

She joined the chamber soon after opening her business in town as an opportunity to be a part of a broader marketing reach, hoping to create relationships with other local businesses in town.

“The chamber has a much broader marketing reach than I might as an individual business,” Kerswill told BusinessWest. “Because of that much broader marketing reach, when the businesses come together and support the chamber, it can reach even further because those member dollars increase our marketing budget and increase our ability to interact with the town.”

When thinking of a small town that relies on tourism to support its economy, one might assume it turns into a ghost town during the winter months. But this is not the case for Stockbridge. In fact, this close-knit town provides plenty of museums, historic sites, and other activities for those who live there and visitors alike, and most don’t close down during the offseason. While summer and spring typically see the most tourism, Stockbridge still has plenty to offer during the other months of the year.

“We are a town that’s open all year long; nobody closes seasonally,” said Kerswill. “All of our shops are independently operated, and they’re all mom-and-pop shops. Everybody carries something you need; we try not to overlap what we sell. We all have different missions.”

Year-round Fun

And these missions all provide different forms of entertainment, 365 days a year.

Barbara Zanetti, executive director of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, noted that, while Stockbridge currently relies on tourism, the chamber is constantly looking for ways to grow the town and slowly move away from that necessity.

“We are a small community with just under 2,000 residents, but we have so much to offer as far as culture,” she said.

Along Main Street alone, one can find the Stockbridge Library, banks and real-estate offices, the Red Lion Inn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Austen Riggs Center, the Mission House Museum, and many more.

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $10.13
Commercial Tax Rate: $10.13
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which celebrates 50 years of exhibits this year. The museum holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art, and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work.

Another popular destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s most beloved music festivals. The 2019 Tanglewood season included everything from performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to showcases for up-and-coming artists.

During the warmer months, outdoor activities abound, Kerswill noted, and suggested visitors take a moment to explore nature in and around Stockbridge.

“Bring your kayak up here, get out on the water, and just let your body de-stress for a couple of hours,” she said. “And then take in the surroundings.”

The natural resources, hiking, and beauty of the countryside are a few things that Zanetti says consistently keep people coming to the area, in addition to the arts and cultural aspects that draw a steady flow of visitors.

And though some activities may slow down during the offseason, Kerswill said few close during the colder months. “There’s just this amazing bit of culture that happens. Whether you live here or whether you’re visiting, you will find something regardless of the time of year.”

Best of Both Worlds

While Stockbridge has the feel of being in the countryside, Kerswill says anything a person could need is only a short drive away.

“We like the small-town New England feel, but you’re also not too far from all the conveniences you need,” she said. “It’s like this illusion of living in the country, but you’re surrounded by everything you need, so nothing is really inconvenient.”

All it takes, she said, is a little bit of research to find a plethora of activities to explore in town.

“I think, unless people really get to know the town, they don’t really realize just how much there is here,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds, for sure.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

CUMMINGTON – This summer, enter the realm between worlds for a weekend full of fairies, fantasy, and fun.
The Massachusetts Renaissance Faire is coming to the Cummington Fairgrounds for its third season July 26-27 and Aug. 3-4.
The festival promises to transport patrons from the midsummer Berkshires into a magical realm of the past.
With all-day entertainment across five stages, there is never a dull moment. Guests will cheer for their favorite knight at the joust, gasp as ladies dance with fire, laugh with the fairies, be amazed by the magic and enjoy the sweet sounds of Renaissance music.
There are plenty of activities for children and adults to create memories together. They may test their strength against a real knight, listen to stories from a vegetarian zombie, or learn how to write with a quill. Patrons may want to try their hand shooting an ancient missile weapon with sponge ammo, practice their fencing skills with foam swords, or shoot a real bow and arrow.
Guests may visit an encampment from the end of the Hundred Years War, watch a blacksmith turn iron into nails, and cheer for armored knights as they wail on each other with swords.
They may also shop over 50 mystical vendors, discover handmade goods, and meet local artisans.
Whether they be a fearsome knight, a flighty fairy or a scurvy pirate, patrons are invited to show off their best costumes, or buy new pieces from the many talented vendors. Although the many costumed characters make the faire come alive, many guests visit in their 21st-century garb.

Berkshire County

Creating Impact

An aerial shot of the sprawling, 26-building campus of MASS MoCA.

An aerial shot of the sprawling, 26-building campus of MASS MoCA.

Anyone who hasn’t been to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the past decade might be surprised at how different it is from its early days. From a near-doubling of art space to a growing array of long-term exhibits to a robust music, theater, and festival business, MASS MoCA has become a true driver of Berkshire County’s creative economy — and that’s by design.

Jodi Joseph understands the challenges of drawing visitors to a museum in — well, it’s not the middle of nowhere, exactly, but it’s also a far cry from Boston or Manhattan.

“We have 13,000 residents in town. We bring over 200,000 people to the galleries every year. That’s a hard thing to do,” said Joseph, director of Communications at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, in North Adams.

But it’s an important thing, she added — not just for the museum, but for the entire region’s creative economy.

“People from 75 miles or more from here know this is a place to see art. Within 75 miles, more people know us as a place to see music and performing arts,” she told BusinessWest during a recent visit. “We are finding more ways to draw connections between the performing and visual arts — to let those visual-arts people know we have this dynamic performing-arts program year-round, and get our performing-arts audience into the galleries to see everything here.”

That’s because more time spent here means more money spent in the northwestern corner of the state.

“Overnight visitors spend six times as much money as day visitors,” Joseph went on. “Part of our economic-development agenda is getting people to understand there’s so much to do at MASS MoCA, and we’re just one of several institutions up here. So if you want to come see us and the Clark [in nearby Williamstown], you’re going to have to spend a night, maybe two nights, to get it all in. Every admission here is good for two days. So stay awhile — there’s so much to see.”

Jodi Joseph, director of Communications at the museum.

Jodi Joseph, director of Communications at the museum.

Much more, in fact, than when the museum opened 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, for that matter. Growth has been a constant in MASS MoCA’s second decade, with the addition of a robust performing-arts and festival business and a massive expansion of floor space to accommodate something unheard of in the early years: permanent exhibits.

Much credit for the former goes to the Chicago-based rock band Wilco, which, a decade ago, became enamored of Western Mass. and saw it as a place to establish a residency and work on side projects. They couldn’t make a connection with Tanglewood work, but when they visited MASS MoCA, they knew they had something. In 2010, the museum launched Wilco’s first-ever Solid Sound festival, a celebration of music and art now held every other summer.

“Thus began MASS MoCA’s foray into a pretty serious concert-festival business,” Joseph said. “It opened the idea of MASS MoCA, this campus, being a destination for music. It was such an exceptional marriage — the fanbase their music attracts was our target audience. There are many other bands we could say that about, but certainly Wilco is in the top 10.”

Today, MASS MoCA presents more than 75 performances year-round, including contemporary dance, alternative cabaret, world-music dance parties, indie rock, outdoor silent films with live music, documentaries, avant-garde theater, and an annual bluegrass festival known as Fresh Grass.

But the museum’s calling card is still modern art — in particular, large-scale, immersive ‘installation art’ that would be difficult to house in conventional museums. The unconventional works form an intriguing counterpoint to the century-old, high-ceilinged mill buildings that house them, which have retained their raw, industrial character over the years, with plenty of exposed brick, ductwork, and concrete floors.

Joseph said visitors appreciate the palpable sense of history they offer — even as MASS MoCA hurtles into its third decade of challenging the status quo.

Maker Space

The 16 acres of the MASS MoCA’s campus — 26 buildings occupying nearly one-third of the city’s downtown business district — form an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passageways, bridges and viaducts; a floor-to-ceiling window in one building overlooks the confluence of two branches of the Hoosic River.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, businesses at or near the site included shoe manufacturers, a brickyard, a sawmill, cabinetmakers, hat manufacturers, machine shops for the construction of mill machines, marble works, wagon and sleigh makers, and an ironworks.

“Overnight visitors spend six times as much money as day visitors. Part of our economic-development agenda is getting people to understand there’s so much to do at MASS MoCA, and we’re just one of several institutions up here.”

In 1860, O. Arnold and Co. installed the latest equipment for printing cloth; large government contracts to supply fabric for the Union Army swelled business, and over the next four decades, Arnold Print Works became the largest employer in North Adams. By the end of the 1890s, 25 of the 26 buildings in the present-day MASS MoCA complex had been constructed, and by 1905, Arnold Print Works was one of the leading producers of printed textiles in the world, employing some 3,200 people.

In 1942, after a period of decline for Arnold, Sprague Electric Co. bought the site, converting the textile mill into an electronics plant, where physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and technicians were called upon by the U.S. government during World War II to design and manufacture crucial components of some of its most advanced high-tech weapons systems, including the atomic bomb. After the war, Sprague’s products were used in the launch systems for Gemini moon missions, and by 1966 Sprague employed 4,137 workers. But, again, sales eventually declined, and in 1985, the company closed its North Adams operations.

“This campus has always made things,” Joseph said. “Now, what we make is art — performing arts as well as visual art.”

Indeed, when North Adams leaders began discussing a new use for the campus, the Williams College Museum of Art was seeking space to exhibit large works of contemporary art that would not fit in conventional museum galleries — and the idea of creating a contemporary arts center in North Adams began to take shape. With funding from both public and private sources, MASS MoCA opened in 1999.

Banners promote current, temporary exhibits

Banners promote current, temporary exhibits, but MASS MoCA has developed an array of long-term exhibits by prominent artists as well.

The ‘maker’ spirit of the complex extends to putting up the installations, many of which are not as simple as hanging a painting. The museum typically doesn’t hide the process, which can take several weeks, but instead embraces it.

“Because of the way our galleries are situated, we can’t help but put ourselves on view when installing an artist,” Joseph explained. “You might walk through and observe someone charging through the gallery with a forklift. This time of year, we’re moving from one gallery to the next, installing new art, and all that activity is usually on view to the public, in addition to everything that’s already installed in the galleries.”

She said the complex, for most of its history, has been home to a constant flow of humanity and industry, and the act of creation is as important — and worthy of viewing — as the static display of art.

“Even if you’re not a contemporary-art person, there’s so much to see in the architecture,” she told BusinessWest. “The buildings themselves are art. The fact that we fill them with art and ideas, and made these buildings accessible to the public, is a joyful experience. My grandparents worked here. My mom worked here. That’s real. I love coming to work every day and being in this site where I know my family history looms large.”

Even the performing-arts elements of the museum embrace the process as much as the outcome. For instance, in 2012, rock icon David Byrne teamed up with director Alex Timbers to create a theatrical piece called Here Lies Love — and, rather than perform it only as a finished product, presented it to audiences as a work in progress.

Similarly, just this year, actor Jon Hamm, director Danielle Agami, and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche led a team that developed a piece called Fishing, also performing it as an evolving work to audiences who were then invited to talk about what worked and what didn’t for them.

“It’s a phenomenal exchange — audiences love it,” Joseph said. “In this culture-drenched region, people get really excited about the creative process. Even if you are not the creator, you get to be involved.”

Permanence in Change

The process of developing and expanding an artistic idea has also taken shape on a macro level over the past decade on the MASS MoCA grounds. In 2008, the museum opened its first long-term exhibition, a three-story space housing about 100 works by famed large-scale wall artist Sol Lewitt — a display the Los Angeles Times once called “America’s Sistine Chapel.”

In 2013, the campus opened a previously unused building for a long-term exhibit by painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. And in 2017, the museum activated more buildings, almost doubling the previous gallery space from 135,000 square feet to 250,000, and installing permanent works by neoconceptual artist Jenny Holzer, multi-media artist Laurie Anderson (who makes use of virtual reality in her gallery), and James Turrell, whose interactive works make intriguing use of light and space, just to name a few.

The museum installed this floor-to-ceiling window

The museum installed this floor-to-ceiling window to give visitors a view of North Adams and, in particular, the point where two branches of the Hoosic River join up.

“Part of the joy of going to a museum is seeing the permanent collection,” Joseph said. “You might return time and again and see new exhibitions, but you can also visit old works in the collection like they are old friends to you. We never had that at MASS MoCA because we only had rotating exhibitions.

“But in 2008,” she went on, “people started to think about MASS MoCA not just as a pilgrimage site for Sol Lewitt fans, but also as a place where visitors could return and find something new at the galleries, but also have this body of work, this artist’s life work, where they were suddenly becoming experts. MASS MoCA members probably know more about Sol Lewitt than many Sol Lewitt scholars.”

The museum has expanded its community connections as well, such as an educational program that brings in 2,500 students from local public schools several times a year. Partner schools develop a curriculum of class projects based on what the students see at MASS MoCA. An invitational program for promising teenagers actually displays their artwork on the museum walls and provides grants to their teachers to stock their classrooms. One area teacher used the grant to purchase a kiln so students can create pottery.

“For these kids, she added, “seeing their art on the walls beside Sol Lewitt kind of raises the stakes for them.”

Another program, called the Studios at MASS MoCA, has hosted more than 500 artists and writers for residencies up to 10 weeks. Hosted by the museum’s Assets for Artists program, selected artists receive private studio space on campus, in addition to housing, free access to the museum’s galleries throughout the residency, optional financial and business coaching from Assets for Artists staff, and a daily group meal.

As part of its examination of the regional creative economy, the Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, a county-wide economic-development plan, recommended expanding the Studios program throughout Berkshire County, she noted. “I’m not sure how that would work, but it’s a great concept.”

And an exciting one, as MASS MoCA has long been a draw to this small city near the New York and Vermont lines — and from that destination status comes myriad ripple effects.

“We were founded with a two-headed mission,” Joseph said. “One was to present the best art of our time, and the second was to be an economic catalyst.”

It does that by leveraging all this activity — not just the performance and display of art, but its very creation — to develop new markets for artists, spur job creation, strengthen community identity, and even boost property values, all of which Joseph has witnessed and hopes to see continue.

“We’re in one of the most robust real-estate moments in North Adams in my adult life,” she said. “We’re happy to contribute to it — even if it’s one by one.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Creative Economy

Dramatic Effect

the Colonial Theatre was reopened in 2006

Following a $21 million renovation, the Colonial Theatre was reopened in 2006 after more than 50 years of inactivity.

Kate Maguire was out shopping recently, wearing a shirt that proudly celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge.

“The young girl at the register — she was probably 18 — was stunned. She said, ‘that theater is 90 years old? I had no idea!’ For her, it was ancient history. But she made me realize that, yes, 90 years of theater is a long time.”

As artistic director and CEO of the Berkshire Theatre Group, which puts on performances at venues in Stockbridge and Pittsfield, Maguire has witnessed quite a bit of that history first-hand since joining the organization 25 years ago.

“The facilities represent two iconic sites,” she said. “The Colonial Theatre is the center of Pittsfield — the center of the county.” As for the playhouse in Stockbridge, also known as the Fitzpatrick Main Stage, “considering that culture is the heart of the community in the Berkshires, that is as iconic a structure as any in Berkshire County.”

But while the buildings themselves are iconic, more importantly, each campus has brought countless people to see some of the most remarkable names in the history of American theater, as well as up-and-coming talent, Maguire noted. “It has created a sort of cultural destination for artists and audiences. That’s what the buildings represent.”

They’re also an economic driver, she added, currently drawing about 75,000 visitors a year and contributing almost $4 million to the local economy annually — as well as employing some 600 people in some capacity each year.

Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) was created in 2010 by the merger of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, housed at the main stage in Stockbridge, and the Colonial Theatre, built in 1903 in Pittsfield. One of the largest arts organizations in the region, BTG oversees the development, production, and presentation of theatre, music, and various other performing arts.

Kate Maguire says involving hundreds of children in productions each year is key to securing BTG’s future.

Kate Maguire says involving hundreds of children in productions each year is key to securing BTG’s future.

The Stockbridge campus presents work at two venues. The 314-seat Fitzpatrick Main Stage, designed by famed architect Stanford White, is a summer-only venue where classical theatre and world premieres are produced. Meanwhile, the 122-seat Unicorn Theatre, open year-round, is home for new and emerging artists, and a space where more experimental, provocative works often finds a receptive audience.

Meanwhile, in Pittsfield, the 780-seat Colonial Theatre — built in 1903 and re-opened in 2006 following a $21 million restoration — hosts family entertainment, comedy, live music, and other events year-round.

Located in the lobby of the Colonial is the Garage, a name that pays homage to its former owner, Berkshire Auto Co. This newest BTG venue, complete with a stage, lights, and sound system, is a dedicated space for local and regional music, comedy performers, and more.

In short, Maguire said, there’s something for everyone.

“I want people to know they’re welcome here,” she told BusinessWest. “They can listen to acoustic musicians or hear a really funny comedian in the Garage, sit with friends, have a drink, then go into the majestic Colonial Theatre and have a completely different experience. Or they might see a rock band on stage, and the following week see an opera performed. It’s a space where people come together from all strata and all walks of life.”

Rich History

The Colonial Theatre opened its doors on Sept. 28, 1903. Built in five and a half months, it boasted pristine acoustics and classic Gilded Age architecture. As was sometimes the custom in that day, the exterior of the theater was designed by a respected local architect, Joseph McArthur Vance, who also designed Pittsfield’s Masonic Temple, the Christian Science building, the superstructure of the Wahconah Park Stadium, Mount Greylock’s Bascom Lodge, and the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington.

“I want people to know they’re welcome here. They can listen to acoustic musicians or hear a really funny comedian in the Garage, sit with friends, have a drink, then go into the majestic Colonial Theatre and have a completely different experience. Or they might see a rock band on stage, and the following week see an opera performed. It’s a space where people come together from all strata and all walks of life.”

From its early days, the space played host to some of the most notable lights in theater, including Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, Eubie Blake, Billie Burke, George Cohan, Irene Dunne, Grace George, William Gillette, Walter Hampden, Helen Hayes, Al Jolson, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Julia Marlow and E.H. Sothern, Will Rogers, Lillian Russell, Ted Shawn, Noble Sissell, Ruth St. Denis, Laurette Taylor, and Ed Wynn.

the Colonial Theatre

Following a $21 million renovation, the Colonial Theatre was reopened in 2006 after more than 50 years of inactivity.

To the south in Stockbridge, the Berkshire Playhouse was founded in 1928 when Mabel Choate sold the Stockbridge Casino to financier Walter Clark. An organization called the Three Arts Society remodeled the casino’s interior by adding a stage and seating for 450 people, and christened the new theatre the Berkshire Playhouse.

In 1937, the Colonial was renovated with a new marquee, projection room, and two retail stores added to the front of the building. With cinema on the rise, the venue operated primarily for the next decade and a half as a movie theater, although some community performances continued. In 1951, the Colonial closed due to the rise of TV and the decline of touring theatrical companies — and would remain closed for more than a half-century.

Down in Stockbridge, the Berkshire Playhouse was reorganized as a nonprofit organization in 1964 and renamed the Berkshire Theatre Festival. In 1976, the playhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996, the Unicorn Theatre was reopened after a lengthy renovation and became BTG’s official second stage.

To the north, meanwhile, efforts to restore and reopen the Colonial were picking up in the 1990s. And organization called Friends of the Colonial Theatre Restoration was formed in 1994, and public tours in 1997 led to increased community awareness of the venue’s potential. A $2.5 million appropriation in state funding followed, and designation of the facility in 1998 as a National Historic Treasure by the Save America’s Treasures Program of the National Park Service only increased the momentum.

After years of design, planning, and community fundraising, the rehabilitation of the historic theater — and the extensive renovation of the adjacent Berkshire Auto Garage — were undertaken. In 2006, the $21 million restoration was complete, and the theater reopened. The 22-month construction process preserved and reinstalled all historically significant architectural and design features — from the vaulted, gilded entrance to the elaborately decorated boxes and balcony to the custom plasterwork — while creating a modern performance center.

“I feel it’s very important to make sure that the community recognizes the theater as their own,” Maguire told BusinessWest. “The doors were closed for 50 years, and the community got together and put in a lot of hard work and money renovate that theater.”

In a year when the Berkshire Theatre Festival marked its 90th summer season and the Colonial Theatre celebrated its 115th birthday, the community continues to show its support, she added. “We’ve been successful in fund-raising, and certainly a lot of people coming to our shows — we’re very grateful for the attendance.”

Kid Stuff

Maguire might be even more proud, though, of the way BTG engages with children, reaching about 13,000 students with cultural programs each year and putting many of them on stage in any given year; this past summer, about 100 Berkshire-area youth performed in Tarzan of the Apes at the Colonial.

“Imagine how many other kids are coming to these productions,” she said. “We are ensuring the vitality of the future of these buildings. Those 100 kids in Tarzan in the summertime — those kids are going to remember that experience, and make sure that building is here for the next generation.”

She believes that because it’s her own story. Growing up in Lowell, she used to attend performances of Boston Children’s Theatre.

“I was amazed at the quality of work, and it looked like an army of kids were working on these produtions,” she recalled. “Little did I know that, many years later, I’d have the opportunity to create such programming in the community I live in now. Every single doorway I’m walked through has been opened because of theater.”

Maguire wants to open those doors for others today — not just children who might feel a spark to follow a passion for theater, but area residents and Berkshires visitors who become part of a long, rich history every time they buy a ticket.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — 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 a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $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 plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year 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. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include 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.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
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

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — 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 address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

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.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. 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, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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