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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.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says Lenox’ tourist economy largely rebounded in 2022.

 

Heading into the high season for tourism in Lenox, Jennifer Nacht didn’t believe this community, home to Tanglewood and dozens of other popular cultural institutions, could do much better than it did last year when it came to filling up rooms at its large portfolio of hotels and inns.

Turns out, she was wrong.

Indeed, a seemingly insatiable appetite on the part of the public for some fun time off away from home, coupled with the relaxing of three-day minimums at many of those lodging facilities, has pushed the numbers even higher, said Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, adding that, in many respects, Lenox started turning the clock back to 2019 last year.

“Last year was so busy,” she said, to the point where she wasn’t sure if 2023 could surpass it, but things are trending that way. “In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”

Still, while the inns and hotels, many of the restaurants, and nearly all of the numerous outdoor attractions staged a full recovery in 2022, many of the theaters and galleries continue to make their way back, said Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing and Communications for Shakespeare & Company, which operates on 33 acres in Lenox.

“In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”

She told BusinessWest that most theaters struggled somewhat last year, with few if any sellouts, as the public was still wary about COVID-19, especially early in the summer.

“We didn’t have terminally light crowds, but the people just weren’t here — it was still a building year for theater,” said Stevenson, who also sits on the Lenox Cultural District Steering Committee. “Visitors were coming back to the Berkshires — outdoor recreation had a banner year — but a lot of the theaters and music venues still struggled; it didn’t feel like we were fully back to normal and where we wanted to be. It felt like we were at 75%.”

Early indications are that theaters will likely improve on last year’s numbers, she said, adding that ticket sales are climbing higher.

“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year,” she explained. “I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”

As summer commences, Lenox will look to build on the momentum it gained from last year, while also leaning on the lessons learned during the pandemic and the opportunities created by it, especially in the broad realm of outdoor dining, which was in many ways new to the community and came of age during that time.

Meanwhile, the chamber will continue to build on its multi-faceted efforts to market the community and bring people to it by spotlighting the myriad things to do and many ways one can fill a day — or several days — while visiting (much more on that later).

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Lenox and how its economy, dominated by tourism, has made it most of the way back from the depths of the pandemic and is looking to set the bar still higher in the months and years to come.

 

Coming Attractions

Nacht knows all about being a business owner in Lenox. She was “one of the gang,” as she put it, the owner of the Scoop, an ice-cream and candy shop on Church Street, which she eventually sold to cryptocurrency tycoon Ryan Salame in 2021; he now owns several businesses in the community.

“I had skin in the game,” she noted, adding that, by then, she was already managing the chamber as well, putting the 40-year-old institution back on a path to better fiscal health and a more effective execution of its mission, which she described this way: “to be a full-service marketing firm for our members.”

And when she says full-service, she means it.

Shakespeare & Company

Shakespeare & Company has a robust slate of performances scheduled for 2023.

“If a member comes in and needs help with graphic design, we’ll do that, too,” she said, adding that, mostly, this work as a marketing firm involves promoting the community, its events, its cultural institutions, and a whole lot more. It does this in a number of ways, including a weekly email blast sent to a growing list of subscribers now numbering more than 1,700.

A quick look at the most recent missive, under the headline “All the Good Stuff to Know This Week from the Lenox Chamber of Commerce and Its Members,” reveals just how much is going on in this community as summer beckons.

There’s the start to the Lenox Farmer’s Market on Church Street, the Lenox Loves Music Sunday series in Lilac Park, the Lenox Wine Fete, which took place on June 3, the Summer Lenox Art Walk, set for June 10-11, a Community Conversation at the Lenox Library titled “The Impact of the Pandemic on Mental Health and How to Manage Moving Forward,” a performance of Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Shakespeare & Company, the Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Summer Food Series, and performances of What the Constitution Means to Me, featuring two-time Tony Award-nominated actor Kate Baldwin, at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge.

Then there are reminders about some of the region’s attractions, many opening for the summer, including the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home; the Wit Gallery; and ‘ghost tours’ of Ventfort Hall in Lenox, home to the Gilded Age Museum, as well as looks ahead to the Jackson Browne concert on Aug. 31 at Tanglewood (tickets went on sale June 1) and other events.

“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year. I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”

The list goes on and on. There’s even a reminder about wellness clinics offered by the Berkshire Humane Society.

The email blasts are part of just part of the chamber’s work to bring people to the region, said Nacht, adding that, while there are some service businesses and representatives of other sectors, the vast majority of the chamber’s 136 members are focused, on one level or another, on tourism and hospitality. They include hotels and inns, restaurants and taverns, theaters, art galleries, bookstores, summer camps, and more.

And while most of the chamber’s work on behalf of these members falls into the category of marketing, there are other initiatives as well, said Nacht, including work with town officials on business-related issues, such as a WiFi bylaw, quarterly meet-and-greets held in conjunction with the chambers in Lee and Stockbridge, and a recently staged job fair designed to help businesses navigate a still-difficult workforce environment.

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,095
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.16
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.03
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

“We had 20 tables of members who were looking for summer help, temporary help, permanent help,” she recalled. “And we had more than 100 people show up; it was really successful event — many of our members actually hired people from the job fair.”

Overall, though, most members are successfully “staffed up,” as she put it, thanks to returning college students and other applicants. And they will need to be as a summer that promises to be even better, from a business standpoint, is poised to begin.

 

Staging a Comeback

For the theaters and music venues, there is still some rebuilding to do from the pandemic, Stevenson told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2022 provided some steps in the right direction, there is certainly room for improvement in the upcoming season.

“Last year was tough,” she said, “and there was a lot of guesswork throughout the season: ‘who are we talking to?’ ‘Who’s here?’ Who wants to come?’”

Elaborating, she said COVID was still on the public’s mind, especially earlier in the summer, when the numbers of cases were still running high. Meanwhile, and as noted earlier in that rundown of all that is happening in Lenox and surrounding towns, there is a lot to do there, and individual venues and attractions are competing with one another for the time and interest of residents and visitors. And in 2002, “it felt like the crowds we were competing for were small and finite.”

There were other issues last summer, including weather — a windstorm cost Shakespeare & Company two performances, Stevenson said, adding quickly that the outlook for 2023 is positive, not just for theaters and other performance venues, but the region in general, as visitation continues to rebound from the COVID years.

Shakespeare & Company recently launched its new season with the two-person show Dear Jack, Dear Louise, she noted, adding that there is a full and intriguing slate of performances slated for this year. The first Shakespearian offering is a rendition of Henry VI Part 2, billed as The Contention. “Henry VI is said to be the inspiration for Game of Thrones, so we’ve been leaning on that a lot.”

Coming later in the summer are August Wilson’s Fences, featuring horror-movie icon (think Candyman) Tony Todd; Golda’s Balcony, a play about Golda Mier; a stage reading of Hamlet featuring Christopher Lloyd; and, in the outdoor theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a “late-’70s music spin,” she added.

Overall, there is a little something for everyone, a well-worn phrase that could also be applied to Lenox itself, said both Stevenson and Nacht, noting many new restaurants downtown and, overall, a calendar full of events and things to do.

In short, a community that took some huge strides toward making a full recovery from COVID is looking to take even more in the year to come.