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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Great Barrington came to life with the help of weekend performances by Berkshire Busk!

Great Barrington came to life with the help of weekend performances by Berkshire Busk!

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.

Betsy Andrus says events like Berkshire Busk! exposed the public to many different local artisans and performers.

Betsy Andrus says events like Berkshire Busk! exposed the public to many different local artisans and performers.

“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.”

 

Bottom Line

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]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington has seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic.

 

On a summer Friday night in Great Barrington, Mark Pruhenski simply enjoyed the sight of dozens of diners eating outside and the sound of musicians playing from various spots around downtown.

Town manager since 2019, Pruhenski said Great Barrington is fortunate to have weathered the pandemic well. He gave much of the credit to a task force formed early on that included town staff and a strong network of partners, including Fairview Hospital, local food banks, and others who lent support.

With its location in the Berkshires, Great Barrington has long been a popular spot for second homes. During the pandemic, many people relocated to their second homes to get away from populated metro areas and work remotely. As time went on, many decided to make Great Barrington their permanent home.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area,” Pruhenski said. “Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, noted that, even at the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and cultural venues were closed, people were still looking for a place to rent or buy. She believes the consistently low COVID-19 infection rates were a strong part of the town’s appeal.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area. Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

“People from larger metro areas came to Great Barrington in droves,” Andrus said. “You could not keep a house on the market, with some sales happening in only a few hours. Others took a virtual tour and bought sight unseen.”

While admitting it’s difficult to find positives from a worldwide pandemic, Andrus said one benefit was forcing businesses in town to change the way they had been operating.

“I think we were kind of stagnant before,” she said. “Then, suddenly, our businesses had to put a lot of energy into how they could reinvent themselves.”

In addition to sit-down restaurants figuring out how to become takeout places, Andrus pointed to Robin’s Candy Shop, which could no longer allow customers to serve themselves in the shop.

“They moved the store around overnight, so now the staff gets you everything you want,” she said. “Then Robin’s quickly switched over to online sales, which is no small feat, either.”

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street.

While Great Barrington saw some stores permanently shutter their businesses during the pandemic, Andrus said COVID was not usually the main reason for closing. In some cases, the businesses that did not survive the pandemic were struggling before COVID hit. For others, the pandemic provided the opportunity for owners to change professions or retire.

“We had a huge movement of stores that was similar to musical chairs,” she said. “When a business would close and make their space available, multiple people were trying to sign up for it.”

 

Filling the Gaps

Like musical chairs, there are no empty spaces now in downtown Great Barrington. As a lifelong resident, Andrus said she’s never seen so much activity.

“In some ways, this big shift is the best thing that could have happened,” she noted. “The stores have all settled in to the right locations for what they are selling, and it has really changed the atmosphere in town.”

With retail storefronts full, the second- and third-story office spaces are also reaching full occupancy. Pruhenski hopes the current boom can address a long-term concern in town.

“We’ve always anticipated that Great Barrington would see a population decline over the next decade and beyond,” he said. “It would be great to see the influx of new residents flatten or even reverse that decline.”

While many town halls closed during the pandemic and conducted business remotely, Pruhenski said Great Barrington Town Hall closed only twice, for a month each time. Otherwise, he and his staff came in every day to keep several town projects moving forward.

In 2019, the state Department of Transportation had closed the Division Street bridge. Right now, the project is in the permitting and design phase for a new bridge, which is scheduled to open next summer.

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it.”

“Division Street is an important bridge because it links the east side of town to the west,” Pruhenski said. “It’s a shortcut everyone in town likes to use.”

In the northern part of Great Barrington, a private water company serves the village of Housatonic that has been struggling with insufficient water pressure. While Great Barrington doesn’t regulate or own the system, the town is involved to make sure residents there receive clean water and to make sure there is plenty of pressure for firefighters when they need it. Pruhenski said he and the Select Board are looking at several options, including a merger with the town’s water system.

“We were working on this during the pandemic because it has an impact on so many residents,” he noted.

After a transportation service for seniors abruptly closed, town officials took the lead to quickly revive the regional van service that now provides transportation to elderly and disabled residents in Great Barrington and five neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2020, the town launched a project to paint the downtown crosswalks as a way to recognize diversity in town. Pruhenski said the reaction by residents was more encouraging than he could have expected.

“We just did our little project, and the timing happened to be perfect that the rainbow was being used as a symbol of hope at the height of the pandemic,” he recalled. “After we painted our first crosswalks, people were encouraged to come outside to see them and take pictures with them. It’s been a fun project that’s made everyone happy.”

For 2021, the town added more rainbow crosswalks, and now the entire downtown corridor has replaced its white crosswalks with rainbows.

“People from other communities are calling us because they want rainbow crosswalks in their town,” Pruhenski said. “They are asking us how we did it and where we bought the paint. This project has been so rewarding during such a challenging time.”

For several years, Great Barrington has been pursuing projects to encourage environmental sustainability. One big step was to ban plastic water bottles in town. In return, the town has built three public water stations to make up for the bottle ban.

Another sustainability effort involves the Housatonic Community Center, a popular gym built shortly after World War II. Pruhenski said the center is used a great deal in the winter, so the town has bulked up on insulation and added LED lighting. He hopes to see big savings in energy use and operating costs for the facility.

Great Barrington also has the distinction of hosting the first retail cannabis store in Berkshire County. Theory Wellness opened January 2019 and is now one of four cannabis establishments in town. Pruhenski said sales at all four stores have been strong, and they have returned some welcome revenue to the town.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.99
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“For fiscal year 2022, we were able to use $3.5 million in cannabis revenue to offset taxes,” he noted. “Capital budget items, like new police cruisers that we normally have to borrow for, were paid for in cash thanks to the cannabis revenues.”

The town also collects 3% from cannabis stores to mitigate the negative effects of cannabis on the community. After awarding $185,000 in fiscal 2021, Pruhenski said the town will be awarding $350,000 in fiscal 2022 to five social agencies in the form of community-impact grants.

Andrus agreed that cannabis has had an overall positive impact on Great Barrington.

“Despite all the traffic cannabis brings to town, I’m surprised at how unintrusive it has been,” she said. “For people with health issues, cannabis allows them to live with much less pain.”

 

Hit the Road

When Massachusetts launched the Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program in June 2020, it was immediately popular across the state. Pruhenski called the program a “silver lining” resulting from the dark cloud of COVID. Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street to support several restaurants located there. Every Friday and Saturday night in the summer, two-thirds of the street is dedicated to outdoor dining. Pruhenski enjoys seeing Railroad Street turn into a café each weekend.

“When we started this in 2020, vaccines were not yet available, and the only way to dine out was to eat outside,” he said. “Restaurants nearby also use their outdoor space, so it creates a lively downtown experience.”

Andrus said outdoor dining on Railroad Street was a huge effort that was well worth it. “It works great, and people love it. The restaurants want to see this keep going, so they are all taking part.” The town also participates in an effort called Berkshire Busk, in which a dozen entertainers perform at different spots around downtown Great Barrington during the outdoor dining season.

Andrus said the town’s response the to pandemic reminds her of the expression, “don’t waste a good crisis.”

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it,” she added. “Because we were all kind of stagnant before the pandemic, it made us try something different.”

Pruhenski would be the first to say that Great Barrington is moving in a positive direction as more people move in, and many are locating their businesses here, too.

“School enrollments are increasing, and Main Street is busier than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time for the town.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jennifer Tabakin

Jennifer Tabakin says initiatives like high-speed broadband, environmental sustainability, and the arts all contribute to quality of life and help attract young people to town.

Jennifer Tabakin is a believer in using public investment to spur private investment. After six years as Great Barrington’s town manager — she’s stepping down in June — she has seen plenty of evidence to back up that philosophy.

“We’ve talked a lot about the investments we’ve made in Bridge Street, which is one of our side streets off Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “Over the years, the public money put into it has been significant, and we’ve been able to see private development come along in response to it.”

Projects like Powerhouse Square, a mixed-use development on Bridge Street. “It’s literally steps from Main Street — exactly where new development should be,” said Town Planner Chris Rembold.

On the ground floor is Berkshire Co-op Market, a grocery store that’s moving from a different location and doubling its size. The development also includes space for smaller retail outlets and 20 new residential apartments on the second and third levels. In fact, that’s just a sample of a recent housing boom in town; in the past year alone, 228 new housing units were either built or permitted.

“We’ve been able to get far more downtown than I ever expected, ranging from affordable units to downtown condos. That meets the needs people have for a more walkable lifestyle” — one where residences are in close proximity to shopping, restaurants, and cultural amenities, Tabakin said.

One example of the latter is Saint James Place, which opened in 2017 as a home to small and mid-sized Berkshire County arts groups in need of performance, rehearsal, and office space. Created out of the historic St. James Episcopal Church on Main Street, several of its office spaces for lease have been filled by arts-related groups such the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Flying Cloud, and the Berkshire Opera.

“It’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people. Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

Saint James Place is now a thriving cultural venue, and we’re thrilled to have them here,” Tabakin said.

In October, in recognition of its vibrant arts life, the downtown was designated one of the state’s cultural districts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“It’s a geographic area with not only plenty of cultural venues and things to do — like the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Saint James Place as performing-arts venues — but it’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people,” Rembold said. “Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

The cultural-district designation, he added, is a recognition of the vitality of the arts and culture in downtown Great Barrington, but it also serves a practical purpose. Cultural districts can access a stream of services including tax credits, economic incentives, planning assistance, grants, historic-preservation help, signs, and tourism promotion. Among the town’s plans is a shared cultural events calendar, which will help the various venues better coordinate their booking schedules, making it easier for visitors to know what’s happening when they spend a weekend or more here.

“It’s kind of an organizational effort, a marketing effort for the downtown,” Rembold said, adding that there’s much to market: the Mahaiwe and Saint James Place alone offer some 200 nights of entertainment a year. “And if something’s not going on there, you can go see a movie or a poetry reading or a Friday night film at the library. If you’re bored in Great Barrington, that’s your own fault.”

Getting with the Times

Another recent boon for downtown is the installation of fiber service. “It’s a strategy to make sure our downtown has the highest-speed broadband and can be competitive with our neighbors in the area, so people can locate here and take advantage of that higher speed,” Tabakin said.

“We have a private company covering all the development cost and infrastructure cost to bring fiber to downtown, and we’ll eventually start moving out to the rest of the community,” said Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the Select Board.

Great Barrington at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, the town continues to make environmental sustainability common practice, moving all municipal, school, and community buildings to green energy sources and reducing use of single-use plastic products.

“For the past four years, we’ve supported eight large solar projects with a combined value of $16 million,” Tabakin added, while many town residents have gone solar as well.

All these factors — culture, high-speed broadband, sustainability — aim to position Great Barrington as a thoroughly modern community, even as it retains much of its quintessential old New England character, thus attracting more young families. Like other towns in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties, Great Barrington has seen the average age of its residents rise in recent years; the community has always been a popular spot for retirees, and there are a number of New Yorkers with summer homes in town.

But by bolstering ingredients like attractive (and affordable) housing, a vibrant downtown, a burgeoning cultural community, and outdoor activities (Ski Butternut is a prominent attraction), Great Barrington’s leaders are looking clearly at the future, which means attracting young people and especially young families.

Of course, those families will need to find find jobs here, and Great Barrington boasts strengths in a number of sectors, including education (Simons Rock of Bard College is located in town), healthcare (Fairview Hospital), technology (perhaps a dozen IT companies call the town home), the arts and tourism, the nonprofit community, and restaurants (the town is home to around 80 of them).

“We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

“The challenge for the Select Board, and all of us, for that matter, is to maintain the vibrancy we have and support for our local retailers and existing businesses, and also be open to new businesses — to keep that appropriate balance and make sure we have diversity in the local economy,” Tabakin said. “That’s something we speak about a lot.”

One area of the economy that’s growing — literally — is the cannabis sector, which is something BusinessWest has mentioned in almost every Community Spotlight over the past six months. Great Barrington is no exception, with Theory Wellness opening the first retail marijuana store in Berkshire County in January, with others to follow. In the first month, the shop netted $2 million in sales and $90,000 in taxes paid to the town.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” said Abrahams, who quickly added that any cannabis business in Great Barrington should do well, due to the town’s proximity to Connecticut and New York, states where the drug is not legal. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems, and police report no increase in people driving under the influence.”

Continuing Commitment

As Tabakin looks back on her six years in office, she’s especially gratified at a Town Hall full of energetic and committed people, and a lot of new faces — during her tenure, 26 people were either promoted or started a career there.

“Several years ago, we were warned we had a number of people approaching retirement age,” Abrahams added, “and it’s been a really smooth transition replacing them with newer people.”

Having a well-run town, Tabakin said, speaks to a commitment to quality of life, one that’s evident in Great Barrington’s vibrant retail district, cultural attractions, quality schools, and more, she said.

“Many times, government gets a bad rap, but I don’t feel that’s the case in Great Barrington,” she told BusinessWest. “We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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