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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Shakespeare & Company’s 33-acre campus in Lenox is open to the public for picnics and exploration of its grounds.

Shakespeare & Company’s 33-acre campus in Lenox is open to the public for picnics and exploration of its grounds.

Becky Piccolo says the Olde Heritage Tavern is the ‘Cheers’ of Lenox.

It’s a place where … well, most everyone knows your name. Indeed, while it’s a popular hangout for locals, those in town for a concert at Tanglewood, a play at Shakespeare & Company, or a massage at one of the spas might well stop in for a burger and a brew as well.

“It’s a gathering place for all the locals,” she said of the tavern, which has been called both a second home for area residents and a home away from home. “It’s really a big family and a big part of the community; it’s way more than just a bar.”

Piccolo and her sister, Rachel, have been managing the tavern for more than 20 years now, but through a series of transactions and changes in ownership, including a time when the U.S. government took possession (we’ll get into all that later), they can now call the establishment theirs.

“The Airbnb phenomenon has certainly impacted us, as it has almost every community in the States and overseas as well. A lot of the modest homes have been purchased by owner/investors that have crowded out the younger families and empty-nest households perhaps looking to downsize to more modest homes.”

And when asked what might change with this latest change in ownership, Piccolo was proud to say, “nothing, really — we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done.”

This is certainly good news for the town and its business community, and this change of ownership at the tavern is just one of many developing stories in this community of 5,000 people that is perhaps the tourist mecca in a region built largely on tourism.

Other stories include, on the municipal side, movement toward a new public-safety facility and new wastewater treatment plant, and, perhaps most importantly, steps forward in the development of two new housing projects, which will, according to Select Board member Marybeth Mitts, make a meaningful dent in what has become a serious shortage of affordable housing.

That’s a problem common to communities of all sizes and across Western Mass., said Mitts, adding that it is perhaps even more acute in Lenox because of its wealth of tourism and wellness facilities and an accompanying trend that has seen many properties in — or close to — the ‘affordable’ category converted to Airbnbs.

“The Airbnb phenomenon has certainly impacted us, as it has almost every community in the States and overseas as well,” she noted. “A lot of the modest homes have been purchased by owner/investors that have crowded out the younger families and empty-nest households perhaps looking to downsize to more modest homes.”

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,095
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.85
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

This development, and the overall lack of affordable housing, has many side effects and has made it even more difficult for the town’s rich stock of restaurants and tourist attractions to find enough help, said Mitts, adding that many restaurants are able to open maybe five days a week instead or six or seven because of staffing issues.

“It has impacted the ability of our village shops and eateries to have the summer staffs that they’ve enjoyed the past several decades,” Mitts explained. “Kids grow up, and they start busing in the restaurants and working in the local retail establishments in the summertime to help with seasonal employment needs. And now, those kids are becoming fewer and far between, and it’s harder for those restaurants to be open seven days a week in the summer because they just don’t have the staff.”

The two new housing projects — a 65-unit, mixed-income development that should break ground in the next 90 days, and a 68-unit project in the earlier stages of development — should bring some relief, but more new housing is needed.

Meanwhile, on the business side, Lenox continues the process of making a full recovery from COVID. The pandemic obviously hit this community hard, and in the years immediately after the height of COVID, when people could go back out and do things, many took their time getting back into that rhythm.

But Piccolo said the town is primed for a big year in 2024.

“Lenox has been hopping; last year was a great year, and Tanglewood’s lineup for this year looks even better,” she said. “I think this summer is going to be a record-breaking summer.”

Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing & Communications for Shakespeare & Company, was similarly optimistic.

A member of the Lenox Cultural District, she said the community’s many attractions are working together — perhaps more than ever before — to promote the sum of all that’s going on (the busy season started Memorial Day weekend, builds through the summer, and peaks in August) and generate some intrigue.

“The cultural organizations in Lenox, including some of the retail spaces, have been working together more than they have in previous years,” she said, citing as reasons everything from the pandemic to turnover, both in Town Hall and in those retail spaces. “That spirit of collaboration is starting to come back.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Lenox, a community that continues to build on its long legacy of being a true destination community.

 

At Home with the Idea

Mitts isn’t from Lenox — she was born in Hartford, Conn. and subsequently lived in many different places, from Washington, D.C. to Detroit to Manchester, Conn., and then back to West Hartford — but came to this picturesque community just south of Pittsfield in 2001 and has raised a family here.

While doing so, she’s made a point of getting involved. Indeed, in addition to serving on the Select Board, she’s been involved with the Cultural Council and was, until recently, chair of the Affordable Housing Trust, and is currently running for state representative as an independent.

Marybeth Mitts

Marybeth Mitts

“We have a pretty robust rooms and meals tax here in town that keeps us very well-situated so that we can maintain a consistently conservative tax rate.”

She said the town’s business community is top-heavy with tourism and wellness institutions, including anchors such as Canyon Ranch; the Miraval Berkshires Resort & Spa (formerly Cranwell Resort); the Mount (Edith Wharton’s home); Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the Mass Audubon Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary; Shakespeare & Company; and many others.

“We have a pretty robust rooms and meals tax here in town that keeps us very well-situated so that we can maintain a consistently conservative tax rate,” Mitts noted. “We’re able to stick to the Proposition 2½ restrictions, and we’ve never had to go for an override; we’re not anywhere near our tax limit.”

This strong fiscal balance sheet will be a real asset as the town faces some needed infrastructure projects, she said, starting with a new, $25 million public-safety facility she described as “hugely necessary.”

“That’s because our Police Department is located in the basement of our town hall, and our fire trucks constantly have to be modified to fit our inadequate and tiny fire station,” she said, adding that a new facility that will bring both departments together will be built at the corner of Housatonic Street and Route 7, a somewhat central location outside the village center.

Also planned is a new wastewater-treatment plant, she said, adding that this project, with a projected $40 million price tag, is due to commence over the next 12 to 18 months.

Another huge issue for the community is housing, Mitts said, adding that there was already a shortage before the Airbnb crush made things considerably worse.

Indeed, she said many modestly priced smaller homes and also several multi-family homes have been converted into Airbnbs.

“Some of the two- and four-unit homes that had either smaller families in them or people who want to stay in town but don’t have large families anymore have been converted to Airbnbs,” she said. “I know specifically of the case of a fourplex that was purchased; there were two small families and two individuals who were living in apartments in this fourplex, and they were essentially evicted so that this person could rehab it and turn it four Airbnbs and charge $3,000 a month for those units.

“One of those individuals was someone who worked in the arts in town and was able to affordably live in town and maintain their livelihood,” she went on. “But now, the need to pay an additional amount of rent and try to find an affordable rental unit … it’s become difficult to impossible, and other people who were essentially evicted and had children in the school district were now looking for places to live so their children could stay in the school district, and I believe one of them wound up living with their mother in another town because they couldn’t find a place to live.”

There are many similar stories, Mitts said, adding that the planned new housing developments — that 65-unit project, to be called Brushwood Farms, and the 68-unit complex currently working its way through the funding and approval processes — may enable more young families to come to Lenox and more empty nesters to stay.

“If that project gets approved, we’ll be adding 133 units to our affordable rental housing stock,” she said, adding that eight of the Brushwood Farms units will be for families, with three bedrooms, in addition to 28 two-bedroom units and the rest with one bedroom.

 

Bar None

Tracing her long history at the Olde Heritage Tavern, Becky Piccolo said she has managed it for several different owners.

That includes John McNinch, who acquired it in 2000 and later sold it to FTX digital bitcoin magnate Ryan Salame, who would eventually enter guilty pleas on two criminal counts — making an estimated $24 million in unlawful political contributions and conspiring to operate an unlicensed money-transmitting business.

As fallout from those charges, the U.S. Marshals Service took possession of the 12 Housatonic St. property, as well as some other properties Salame owned in Lenox, and Piccolo essentially managed the tavern for the federal government while it arranged an auction.

“We’re operating normally; it’s business as usual, the staff is happy, so it’s ‘keep on trucking’ here,” she told the Berkshire Eagle the day after the U.S. Marshals Service took possession.

And those same sentiments apply today, after Annie Selke, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Annie Selke Companies, prevailed at that aforementioned auction in April and in turn sold the tavern to the Piccolo sisters.

Indeed, when asked what it felt like to own the landmark instead of managing it for someone else, including the government, Piccolo said, “I run it the same. It’s just kind of like who I am; I’ve been here for so long.

“It’s a huge part of my life, and it continues,” she went on. “It’s like nothing changes; it’s like I never skipped a beat.”

Elaborating on what she said earlier, Piccolo said she is planning just a few small changes, but is largely invoking the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy, and in most all respects, the tavern isn’t broken.

Instead, it has grown from being purely a place for locals — a dive bar, by many accounts — to a destination for those coming to Lenox to take in its many attractions.

That list includes Shakespeare & Company, which has an intriguing season planned for 2024. It includes a few traditional Shakespeare plays — The Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale (in this case, an ‘enhanced reading.’ But it also features other offerings, including a world premiere of The Islanders, starting July 25; a regional premiere of Flight of the Monarch, described as a “darkly comic play that explores how siblings’ lives are intertwined”; the world premiere of Three Tall Persian Women, a “comedic and touching play about generational differences, grief, control, and learning to let go, but more than anything it’s a love story to immigrant mothers”; and Shake It Up: A Shakespeare Cabaret.

That eclectic lineup is part of what should be another summer and early fall of building more momentum in Lenox, said Stevenson, who returned to that notion of collaboration among the tourism institutions at this pivotal time for the community.

“We do a lot of art walks, art weeks, and music; Lenox loves music. These are things that happen year-round and are held at different locations, different venues, year to year,” she said, adding that Shakespeare & Company recently staged a Community Day (an open house of sorts with events that also showcased area nonprofits), and other venues have staged similar gatherings.

Collectively, they build not only awareness, but a sense of community, hence the name, said Stevenson, adding that the cultural district works to call attention to all different kinds of artists, promote diversity in the arts, and, in general, celebrate and promote the community’s rich inventory of restaurants and things to do.