By Mark Morris
As the pandemic enters its third year of disrupting life as we knew it, the business community in Lee continues to manage the disruptions of COVID-19 and its variants with a good degree of success. Colleen Henry attributes that to one reason.
“The local people here in Lee are strong supporters of our businesses,” said Henry, executive director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce.
Along with Lenox and Stockbridge, Lee is part of the Tri Town Health Department, which has maintained a mask mandate for all indoor spaces. One upside of the mask requirement is that it enables businesses, as well as town offices, to remain open without interruption.
That’s important, said interim Town Administrator Christopher Brittain, who has been on the job for only four months, yet has a full list of projects in the queue for this year and beyond.
Lee received an allocation of $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, which will be spread out among several projects in town. Among them are replacing water lines in a couple of areas and upgrading the municipal website to make it easier for people to conduct town business online.
“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value. We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”
All three towns in the Tri Town Health Department will contribute some of their ARPA money to fund the creation of a new food-inspector position in the department, a position certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of a national standards program.
“Obviously, we have inspectors now,” Brittain said. “The new position gives us someone to provide guidance with federal programs and reduce issues with food service and retail food vendors.”
Outside of ARPA funds, Brittain discussed several projects in the works, including paving on Main Street, with $1 million in funding approved at the last town meeting to continue that project into the summer.
Lee at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1777
Area: 27 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $13.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.65
Median Household Income: $41,566
Median Family Income: $49,630
Type of Government: Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Lee Premium Outlets; Onyx Specialty Papers; the Landing at Laurel Lake; Oak n’ Spruce Resort; Big Y
* Latest information available
One significant project Brittain hopes to see make progress this year involves the former Eagle Mill paper company. Plans to redevelop the site feature 80 units of affordable and market-rate housing, as well as several restaurant and retail stores. The $55 million project has been in the works for several years, though the official groundbreaking was held only three months ago.
“Because of COVID, the Eagle Mill project is moving slower than everyone wants it to,” Brittain said, noting that a significant next step involves six dilapidated houses near the site, which were recently purchased to be torn down. Construction on the mill complex is scheduled to roll out in two phases. “This is a big project that will take up the entire north end of Main Street.”
Additional housing in Lee would certainly be welcome, said Henry, who noted the current supply of available houses is low because sales have been so brisk. “As a result, we have a lot of new residents, and that’s kind of exciting.”
In terms of real-estate taxes, the past year brought both good news and bad news, as the town lowered the tax rate, but selling prices for homes kept boosting valuations, resulting in higher taxes anyway.
“Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”
“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value,” Brittain said. “We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”
For this year, the tax rate is $13.65 per thousand, down from $14.68 the year before. Because of higher valuations, he explained, the average tax increased by $193.
High Times Ahead
One industry relatively new to the tax rolls in Lee is cannabis. Right now, Canna Provisions is the only cannabis facility that’s up and running, but Brittain said the town has 14 permits for various cannabis facilities, with interested parties claiming 13 of them. Activity for future cannabis businesses includes a facility for growing on Route 102 under construction and a dispensary proposed for the former Cork and Hearth restaurant on the Lee/Lenox line.
The revenue from Canna Provisions has begun making a difference for the town. Brittain said the impact on tax revenue has made it possible for the town to consider hiring a full-time school resource officer, add streetlights in town, and begin a study on public-safety facilities.
Right now, Lee’s public-safety departments are in several buildings. The police operate out of two floors in Town Hall, the Fire Department is in an historic firehouse, and the town ambulance is located in a separate building.
“We are doing a study to see if we can consolidate public safety in one new building,” Brittain said. “Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”
While the study won’t happen for a while, he noted, thanks to the cannabis revenue, the town can explore its options for whether to invest in what it has or move forward with a new facility.
Before the Omicron variant of COVID hit, businesses in Lee were having a strong fall season. Henry said business was brisk. “We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”
Despite new variants of COVID and other disruptions to business, Henry noted that, because restaurants have developed strong takeout systems, they can quickly adapt and keep serving their customers.
“I’ve heard from people in Lee how grateful they were to still be able to get good food and how the restaurants worked to accommodate everyone,” she said, adding that the quick adaptation to takeout kept people employed “even though everyone still needs more workers.”
Looking ahead to other projects in town, plans are moving forward for a bike path that would run along the Housatonic River. The mile-long path would extend approximately from Big Y to Lee Bank. Brittain said it’s not certain if construction will begin this year, but the town is working with MassDOT to keep the project moving.
“We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”
Lee has also applied to become an Appalachian Trail Community. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website, when a town along the trail receives designated community status, it is considered a support asset for all who use the trail, and the conservancy encourages people to explore these communities. If accepted, Lee looks to join Western Mass. communities of Cheshire, Dalton, Great Barrington, and North Adams with the designation.
“We’ve been working with the Appalachian Trail folks, and we’re hoping Lee receives its designation by the end of the year,” Brittain said.
Seeking a Return to Normalcy
For the past two years, Lee had to cancel its annual Founders Weekend celebration — which recognizes the founding of the town back in 1777 — due to COVID concerns. Henry said people in town treat it as a fun birthday celebration, and in 2022, the town will be 245 years old.
Held on the third weekend in September, the community-wide event takes place on Main Street, which is closed to traffic to allow restaurants and other vendors to set up in the middle of the street.
“Founders Weekend always draws a huge crowd, and that’s why we were not able to hold it the last two years. It was too difficult to keep such a large gathering safe,” Henry said.
While there is no guarantee Founders Weekend will happen this year, she has it listed in her event calendar, and both she and Brittain are hopeful the event will take place in September.
“I think people are ready for a fun blowout weekend,” Henry said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”