Like most communities that rely on tourism and hospitality to anchor their economies, Great Barrington was hit hard by COVID-19, with its lively downtown coming to a virtual standstill in the early months of the pandemic and recovery coming slowly amid different surges in 2021 and even early this year.
But in recent months, this community, the hub of the Southern Berkshires, is starting to look like its old self — with some wrinkles and some businesses in new places, as we’ll see. Which means its restaurants, clubs, and cultural attractions are thriving, and people from near and somewhat far are once again finding Great Barrington.
“Everything kind of filled in accordingly,” said Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, referring to both the calendar of events and downtown real estate. “The normal things that have happened, even if they had their hiatus during COVID, are back and seem to be back in full swing.”
This past summer has been a good one for the community as higher gas prices prompted more day tripping, said Andrus, adding that there was considerable pent-up demand for all that Great Barrington has to offer — from brewpubs to a wide range of dining options to an eclectic mix of shops — and business owners took full advantage of the opportunities afforded them.
Town Manager Mark Pruhenski agreed.
“This past summer has been incredible for Great Barrington,” he said. “There were a number of events taking place, such as the popular summer concert series every Wednesday and Friday, the Fire Department’s annual car show, and the farmer’s market that is held every Saturday.”
One of the most popular events this summer made a return after its COVID hiatus. Berkshire Busk! took advantage of the close-knit nature of the town’s businesses and offered many different types of entertainment in different locations. For its third year, weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day were packed with magic, performing arts, music, and more.
“It’s difficult to say if inflation has impacted tourism because it didn’t seem to impact the number of visitors. But inflation is certainly impacting purchasing and project costs for the town, and housing challenges remain a high priority.”
“I’ve lost count of how many weekends they had multiple performers at different venues,” Andrus told BusinessWest. “It exposed the public to so many different local artisans and it was very popular with visitors and locals.”
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Great Barrington, which hasn’t put COVID in its rear-view mirror, but is definitely looking to even better times down the road.
Picking Up the Pace
Andrus noted that, as businesses started to get back into their groove, there was what she called “a great rotation” throughout Great Barrington’s downtown area — businesses moving from one location to another as spaces become available.
This phenomenon changed the landscape in a minor way, but it added a new element to a central business district that has always been a popular destination.
“Everything is about 10 minutes apart at least; it wasn’t very far apart, but they moved,” Andrus said. “I think the choices people made were great.”
She went on to explain that some of the popular restaurants and stores had to change their hours or close certain days mostly because of a persistent workforce crisis, but also “for their own sanity,” as business returned to downtown venues and in a big way, even amid the higher gas prices and skyrocketing inflation.
Pruhenski concurred. “It’s difficult to say if inflation has impacted tourism because it didn’t seem to impact the number of visitors,” he said. “But inflation is certainly impacting purchasing and project costs for the town, and housing challenges remain a high priority.”
Andrus agreed, noting that, with the inflating value of land and housing, people are struggling to find good, reasonably priced housing. Great Barrington and other outlying towns are hoping to find a solution because “people deserve clean, affordable housing in a good location.”
As summer draws to a close, another important and traditionally vibrant time begins for Great Barrington and the Southern Berkshires. The community has a number of events on tap to keep tourists and locals busy and intrigued. Cultural venues will go on with their events until the end of the fall foliage or until it gets too cold to hold events outdoors.
“Outdoor dining will continue until it gets too cold,” Andrus said. “I think the fall will not be as busy as the summer, but it will still be very busy.”
Coming up at the end of September is the Festival Latino, which is always very popular among tourists and locals. It features Latin American folkloric dance and music performances, language and cultural activities, artisans, and Latin cuisine vendors.
Meanwhile, the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce is introducing its new video series. Great Barrington has a full menu of dining options, said Andrus, and if people want to see what the town has to offer, they can visit the “Chefs of the Berkshires” series and purchase one video for $10 or $60 for the entire series of 13 restaurants, a savings of more than 50%.
“It’s a way to show people that this is what’s going on in this area; some of it highlights the location, too,” Andrus said. “This whole series is to get people more acquainted with the area. And if they live here, we want to show them there is more than just the restaurant they’re used to going to — we want them to branch out.”
She noted that 50% of revenues generated by the program are given back to the restaurants to help them meet the considerable challenges of these times, including workforce issues, rising prices, and other lingering effects of COVID. “And I want to be able to hand them a big check.”
Another video series the chamber has introduced is “Tour the Berkshires,” a tour package that introduces people to recreation in the Berkshires. Visitors are able to book a weekend of activities if they live in the area or if they’re from out of town and need lodging.
“They’ll go through a whole weekend schedule: there’s yoga and stretching classes, Reiki, dinner at the breweries, renting bikes for a self-guided 20 mile ride, and hiking,” Andrus explained. “There’s a ton of stuff to do here. It’s a whole weekend of activities and food.”
Andrus told BusinessWest that Great Barrington has long been a destination — for people from this state, neighboring New York, and even beyond. Visitors have been drawn to the different kinds of attractions and came knowing they could find old favorites as well as something new.
And that remains true today. Different venues, such as the Chesterwood museum, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, St. James Place, and Barrington Public Theater all have their own schedules, and they’ll keep producing plays, musicals, and events through the end of the fall season.
It’s taken a while, and COVID has changed the landscape in some ways, but Great Barrington has its groove back.
Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]