Brolin Winning and his wife used to run a barbecue stand on the Mohawk Trail, and he’d occasionally look up at the abandoned building next door, a mansion built in 1914 that later operated for decades as the Anchorage Nursing Home before closing in 2011.
“We’d look up the hill at this place — which had been abandoned for a decade — and just think, ‘man, that’s a sweet spot.’ But it was just melting into the ground.”
But then a friend came into some money and was looking for an investment project. “I said, ‘you should buy the nursing home,’” Winning recalled. So they did — and begin fixing it up.
That was early 2020, when COVID hit, but the ensuing shutdown of the hospitality economy gave the team — owner Hilltown Lodge LLC, Thomas Douglas Architects of Northampton, and Tristan Evans Construction of Greenfield — time to redesign the space, gut the building down to its studs, and restore it with seven spacious suites; a kitchen, bar, and upscale but cozy lounge areas; and outdoor relaxation and recreation space across 38 acres. Among the next plans is a big stage up the hill for weddings and other events.
“I couldn’t wait to come back, just to be in the woods again and on the river again. It’s just, like, the best place to live.”
But while Winning is gratified that the hotel, called Shelburne Springs, has had a successful first few months, he doesn’t view the property in a vacuum, but as part of a renaissance along the Mohawk Trail that includes renovations and reopenings at the Sweetheart Restaurant in Shelburne Falls, the Duck Pond antique shop in Shelburne, the Blue Vista Motor Lodge just over the Berkshire County line in Florida, and more.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on, whereas I feel like it was … I wouldn’t say run-down, but quiet for a while,” Winning said. “COVID obviously affected everybody in this area, but a lot of people were coming out here even more because we’re like in the country and away from the crowd, and there’s a lot of outdoorsy stuff.
“I’ve lived all over the country; I’ve lived a long time in California, Boston, Chicago, and different cities,” he went on. “But I’ve always loved it here. I grew up in Amherst and Northampton, but I used to come up here to fish when I was a kid. That’s how I got into the Mohawk Trail. To me, there’s nowhere like it. I was in San Francisco for a long time, and I would come back here twice a year. And I couldn’t wait to come back, just to be in the woods again and on the river again. It’s just, like, the best place to live.”
He’s not the only one who feels that way about this county of 71,000 residents — fewer than half the total of Springfield — spread across 26 communities.
“It’s stunningly beautiful. That can’t be overlooked,” said Hannah Rechtschaffen, recently appointed coordinator of the Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA). “And I think there is a wonderful, long history up here of people being very engaged in their communities. When you travel from town to town, you find a lot of residents and business owners who feel very passionate about that, about the town that they’re in.”
“I feel like if you wanted to kill as many birds as possible with one stone, a robust housing strategy would be the way to do it.”
Rechtschaffen cited draws like the county’s outdoor recreation experiences and attractions like Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls and Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield, but said tourists find much more.
“People come for these beautiful experiences, and they’re also finding other cool stuff, from whitewater rafting to restaurants. So the challenge is to reach out to people up and down the Valley and let them know there are really lovely experiences close to them,” she said. “All these towns have something special to offer, but together, we can offer something really beautiful.”
For residents and business owners, she added, “because it’s a small county, it has a bit of history of people needing to go to neighboring communities for different things. When you have that history of people stepping to the community next door to find something, you have this nice connectivity, which has gotten more robust over time. You have an opportunity for towns in Franklin County to work together in a unique way.”
Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, agreed.
“I think one of the major strengths of Franklin County is that we have a comprehensive set of supportive services around business development,” she said, citing robust connections between the chamber, local businesses, workforce-development and entrepreneurship-focused agencies, and legislators.
“Collaboration is really the only way forward for us. I think Franklin County has always used partnership and collaboration as a special sauce, and I think that served us well during the pandemic. And part of the chamber’s job is to continue to fuel those collaborations and help make those connections.”
Clearly, it takes a village — well, 26 of them — to create a culture in the northernmost county of Western Mass., one that faces challenges, but also has more to offer than many outsiders realize.
Challenge and Opportunity
Deane said many of Franklin County’s challenges are no different than those seen across Western Mass.
“Of course, housing is a challenge. And transportation is particularly troublesome in more rural communities because that’s a barrier to a lot of our entry-level employment. And childcare is huge; there is a lack of high-quality childcare in this area.”
“One of the things I appreciate about Franklin County is that we can keep our identity — we have the nature, the beauty, the rural luster of it — but there’s increasing opportunity.”
Hiring also continues to be a challenge across industries, she added — another issue being felt across the state.
“I think we have a unique twist on that because we are a rural community, so it’s a little more exacerbated on this side of the state. One of the challenges I’m particularly concerned about is the population-decline projections. So we’re working overtime in collaboration with our legislators to make sure the Commonwealth is more equitably funding projects and initiatives across the state and, as a chamber, making sure that we’re doing our best to shine a light on why Franklin County is such a great area to live and work, and hopefully attracting new families to the area.”
She said the Regional Tourism Council’s task is to attract more tourism to a county that already brings more than $79 million in tourism dollars every year to destinations ranging from Berkshire East in Charlemont to Northfield Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain; from Yankee Candle and Tree House Brewing Co. — and its slate of summer concerts — in Deerfield to Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield and Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield.
“Tourism is really about OPM: other people’s money. And we want to make sure that we are helping them spend that here. And there is so much to do,” said Deane, who calls Franklin “the fun county,” and wants more people to know about that.
“There are endless opportunities for fun in Franklin County. And in terms of our work in the Regional Tourism Council, we’ve made some significant strides. In the past year, we branded our tourism side. We worked with a local company to give Franklin County a really great visual presence, with the tagline ‘more to Franklin County,’ because one of the things that we found when we did that investigative work is that folks said there’s always more to do: ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much. We’ve got to come back.’”
The council is also in the process of launching a standalone tourism website, Deane added.
“We want to make it easy as possible for people to plan their trip, and we’re working with our hospitality vendors to do itinerary planning based on any given interest. So if you’re really into craft beverages, this is what you can do for a weekend. If you’re really into outdoor recreation, this is what we recommend you can do for a weekend.”
A member of the Greenfield Business Assoc. who is about to join the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and whose family owns Hawks & Reed, Jeremy Goldsher also co-owns Greenspace CoWork with Jeff Sauser, so he has a broad perspective on business life in Greenfield and its environs.
“We’ve seen already that Hawks & Reed started a bit of a new music and cultural renaissance in downtown, to the point that now you can’t walk around in any given weekend without seeing kids running up and down the streets of different local venues,” Goldsher noted.
As the owners of Greenspace CoWork, which now has two facilities on opposite sides of Main Street in downtown Greenfield, Goldsher and Sauser have cultivated key business connections through programs like the monthly Business Breakdown networking events.
“It’s developed quite a bit, from ‘I need some emotional support from my business peers’ to a really fun, informal gathering of a lot of our favorite business leaders, business owners, and a group of young, entrepreneurship-minded folks that we’ve never met,” Goldsher said. “We always get new folks at each meeting. We’re now in our 14th or 15th run of it, and I think the Business Breakdown has been a gateway for us to really get onto the map of Franklin County in a bigger way than our co-work business was permitting us.”
With programs like Business Breakdown and a six-month accelerator program, Goldsher is starting to see a “domino effect” of key connections. “We’re starting to see the Franklin County CDC, which has been a great partner of ours, become a lot more visible in their entrepreneurial work and various programs starting to revolve around specific topics, which is great.”
Emerging from the pandemic, those connections are more crucial than ever, Sauser said.
“We’ve had our ups and downs with the economy. We got through COVID. I think we’ve been an important part of the downtown revitalization, especially with the move to remote work and more flexibility. That’s important to the economic-development story of Franklin County in general, along with getting broadband access out there and just making this a place people can do a job that’s based anywhere, so they can live where they want to live.”
After all, while tourism is critical to the economy, Sauser said, tourism can’t be all Franklin County offers; it has to be a place people want to live and work, and where they find it affordable and rich enough in amenities to do both.
As an urban planner who has done a lot of policy and analysis work in housing, he said housing is the biggest issue.
“I feel like if you wanted to kill as many birds as possible with one stone, a robust housing strategy would be the way to do it. People are moving here in part because they can’t find the housing they’re looking for; nationwide, there’s a huge shortage.”
So there are real opportunities for growth, he said, adding that municipalities need to be smart with not only strategies for housing development — the residential units coming online in the former Wilson’s Department Store building in downtown Greenfield is a “game changer” for the city, he said — but with property taxes as well. The other big draw for families is school systems, and Sauser said many communities still have room for improvement there.
“That can hold places back. There are other options out there, private schools and charter schools, but the core of the public school system isn’t as successful as it could be.”
For every challenge, though, there are business success stories, Deane said.
“One that comes to mind is Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston,” she said. “Lucy moved back into the area from Seattle. She crowdfunded to start her business. She’s now expanding. And that’s in partnership with support from the chamber, from the great folks at CISA, from the CDC. She’s really taken this bake shop and made it famous across the county. And she’s now expanding to include a community center so that she can help teach cooking courses or baking classes.”
A stone’s throw from Lucy’s is the Farm Table, the iconic Bernardston eatery on the Kringle Candle property that closed in 2020 but is reopening this month under the management of serial restaurateur Ashley Evans, who grew up in Turners Falls and was intrigued by the possibility of reopening the Farm Table while on a visit from her home in the state of Florida.
“When I came to this property, how could I pass it up? It’s just absolutely breathtaking, everything about it,” Evans said, adding that the goal is to offer an elevated culinary experience, with many ingredients locally sourced, but at a less elevated price than before.
“We plan on having a similar menu, but redone and more adapted to the market in this community. Instead of a fine-dining establishment, we want to make it an everyday establishment. You can stop by and get something, and the bill’s not $300.”
Evans also plans to host events, from outdoor movies to Hawaiian nights; from outdoor clambakes to a haunted house in the event center.
“We have a lot of ideas to bring the community together,” she said, adding that, despite the workforce pains plaguing the hospitality industry, she was able to staff up quickly, which says something about the establishment’s reputation.
“That speaks to what this property is. It almost speaks for itself,” she noted. “I didn’t have to do a ton of marketing; we said we’re hiring, and people were anxious to work here, which is a beautiful thing.
“I’m so pumped. I’m excited,” Evans added. “I just walk in and feel grateful every day.”
Grit and Gratitude
So does Rechtschaffen, who spent almost two decades away from Western Mass. before returning in 2018 and immediately immersing herself in Franklin County life, chairing the Sustainable Greenfield Implementation Committee, which supports the use and implementation of the city’s master plan, and serving on the Downtown Greenfield Alliance and the Local Cultural Council.
She was director of Placemaking for W.D. Cowls in North Amherst before taking on her current leadership position with the GBA, where she’s focused on how businesses in this largely rural county can thrive in the post-pandemic years.
“We’re looking at how people are locating themselves, especially with remote work, with proximity to Boston. We are seeing people come into this area with a different sense of how they’d like their lives to be,” Rechtschaffen said. “We welcome people in who are looking to move out of city-centered life without sacrificing the feeling of community and connectedness and available amenities.”
Deane said the past few years have taught resilience to residents and businesses here, but also new ways forward.
“Economic development is really a long game. So we’re having these conversations now that hopefully will impact the next 15 or 20 years,” she explained. “And we’re doing that with a fresh understanding that, at any point, those plans can go completely rogue and be blown up by whatever comes next. So we’re being cautiously optimistic as we plan and prioritize on a regional level.”
To Sauser, the county’s value is evident in its people, its businesses, its quality of life, and the places that bring those people — and visitors — together.
“I feel like it’s a place to watch,” he said. “I’ve been told, when I moved here, that Greenfield is the kind of place that always feels like it’s about to turn the corner, but it never actually does. I’m getting a lot of signals now that it’s looking pretty good.”
“One of the things I appreciate about Franklin County is that we can keep our identity — we have the nature, the beauty, the rural luster of it — but there’s increasing opportunity,” she said. “It’s becoming easier to say, ‘this is what Greenfield is all about, this is what Franklin County is all about, and you’re welcome to be here.”