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Community Spotlight

Stockbridge Looks Forward, Honors Its Heritage

By Mark Morris

Town Administrator Michael Canales

Town Administrator Michael Canales says a number of municipal projects speak to Stockbridge’s progress during the pandemic.

One of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings depicts a snow-covered Main Street in Stockbridge. The painting “Home for Christmas” was intended to celebrate small towns all over America, but these days, it’s nearly impossible for modern-day photographers to recreate the artist’s vision without including a constant stream of traffic.

While that might frustrate photographers, Margaret Kerswill is encouraged by all the activity she has seen this summer and into the fall.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge,” the board president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce told BusinessWest. “It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Kerswill said the pandemic encouraged business owners to find creative ways to keep people safe while maintaining their operations — and revenues. Despite the many challenges last year, they’ve largely come back strong.

“As rules and mandates kept changing, our business owners rolled with it,” she said. “It was wonderful to see everyone rise to the top of their game.”

Tri Town Health acts as a regional health department for the towns of Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 began spreading, Tri Town Health imposed mask mandates for indoor common spaces.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge. It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Stockbridge Town Administrator Michael Canales appreciates the agency’s work to keep the community as safe as possible. As of Oct. 15, 68% of Berkshire residents are fully vaccinated, while 78% have received at least one dose.

On the job for just over a year, Canales has not yet had the chance to lead the community in the absence of a pandemic. “It will be a little difficult for me to compare what normally happens in town because I have yet to see what normal looks like,” he noted.

Children’s Chime Tower

Repair work will begin next year on the Children’s Chime Tower, a fixture since 1878.

For now, he believes longtime residents who tell him Stockbridge is starting to look normal again. Canales himself has certainly noticed the busy summer and fall seasons, and credits that in part to the return of Tanglewood, which offered a limited schedule for audiences half the size of a normal show.

“Tanglewood is an example of one of the big events that happened as a smaller event for this year,” he said.

Despite the limited schedule, Kerswill said it was important that Tanglewood held events this year. “Tanglewood is integral to the local economy. It provides so many jobs in the area and definitely brings visitors to town for dining and shopping.”

Kerswill also wanted to set the record straight for BusinessWest about “a broad misconception” that Tanglewood is located in Lenox. “The entrance is in Lenox, but nearly 85% of Tanglewood’s land is actually in Stockbridge.”

 

Change and Progress

For several years, Kerswill co-owned Mutability in Motion, a gift shop she ran with her wife, Laureen Vizza. When COVID hit, they made the decision to close the shop.

“We’re working on new endeavors, still keeping our efforts local, but in new areas,” she explained. In addition to starting a personal blog called artmeditationlife.com, Kerswill has become a licensed realtor.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy,” she said, adding that home-improvement services are also coming back strong, as evidenced by long wait times for many home projects.

In terms of municipal projects, Stockbridge added a new highway garage this past spring, though supply-chain issues caused delays in finishing it even sooner.

A current project nearing completion is the Larrywaug Bridge on Route 183. Canales expects this busy connector road will be open by the winter, with finishing touches to be completed in the spring.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy.”

Next year, repair work will begin on the Children’s Chimes Tower, a fixture in Stockbridge built in 1878. Canales said the town has approved funding to refurbish all the internal mechanisms.

“It’s a neat structure, but it needs some tender loving care,” he added. “We’re hoping to make repairs that will keep it playing for the next 50 years.”

Still relatively new in the job, Canales said it’s been exciting to learn about the rich history of Stockbridge. While people all over the world are familiar with Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the town’s mention in James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James,” there are even deeper historical references to be found which Canales said “makes it a fascinating community.”

For example, the town is working on a project to protect old-growth forests, specifically Ice Glen, a ravine in the southeast area of Stockbridge. Its name comes from the many moss-covered rocks with deep crevices that can sustain ice into the summer.

During the time he wrote Moby Dick, Herman Melville lived in Pittsfield and is said to have visited Ice Glen at least once. The Stockbridge ravine is referenced in the novel when narrator Ishmael describes Pupella, a seaside glen, as “a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen.”

These days, the town is exploring several options to protect the old-growth trees from insects that are causing damage in Ice Glen.

The Chamber of Commerce has joined the effort to help tourists find both famous and lesser-known sites in Stockbridge. As an ongoing project, it has developed and begun installing new signs to help direct people to the many attractions in town. Right now, they’ve been installed downtown, but the plan is to expand the green-and-white signs to more areas of the community.

“We want to help people get around outside the downtown area because there is a lot to see,” Kerswill said. “If someone is here only for a weekend, we want to make sure they can find all the attractions that interest them.”

 

Better Days

While the town navigates the various stages of the pandemic, Canales said he and many others are looking ahead.

“We are staying on top of things and keeping an eye on trends so that when we come out of this, Stockbridge will be in the best possible shape to return to normal, or as close as we can get to normal,” he noted.

Kerswill added that Stockbridge is a place that continues to amaze her.

“Whether we’re going through good times or difficult times, it’s a community that comes together to get things done. I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

When Margaret Kerswill talks about her favorite part of the town of Stockbridge, she doesn’t mention a restaurant or the relatively low property-tax rate — she talks about the positive vibe and sense of community in town.

Although Kerswill’s favorite local shop is undoubtably Mutability in Motion, a store she owns with wife Laureen Vizza that sells crafts from more than 50 artisans in the U.S., the first thing she mentioned was the culture of the town.

“That’s the absolute joy of Stockbridge itself,” she said. “You see it in every aspect of Stockbridge, whether you’re just out and about for your daily activities like going to the post office. Doing those normal, daily things, you bump into people all over the place.”

And Kerswill experiences this sense of community in more ways than one. As president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, she regularly attends meetings and finds that several town residents show up consistently, contradicting the typical stereotype for chambers of commerce.

“It’s a great force in the town,” she said. “The more members we have, the more feedback we get, and the more people who can take part in town meetings. It gives us a bigger voice, and it helps us when we come at this as a collective rather than trying to do all the same things, but as individuals.”

She joined the chamber soon after opening her business in town as an opportunity to be a part of a broader marketing reach, hoping to create relationships with other local businesses in town.

“The chamber has a much broader marketing reach than I might as an individual business,” Kerswill told BusinessWest. “Because of that much broader marketing reach, when the businesses come together and support the chamber, it can reach even further because those member dollars increase our marketing budget and increase our ability to interact with the town.”

When thinking of a small town that relies on tourism to support its economy, one might assume it turns into a ghost town during the winter months. But this is not the case for Stockbridge. In fact, this close-knit town provides plenty of museums, historic sites, and other activities for those who live there and visitors alike, and most don’t close down during the offseason. While summer and spring typically see the most tourism, Stockbridge still has plenty to offer during the other months of the year.

“We are a town that’s open all year long; nobody closes seasonally,” said Kerswill. “All of our shops are independently operated, and they’re all mom-and-pop shops. Everybody carries something you need; we try not to overlap what we sell. We all have different missions.”

Year-round Fun

And these missions all provide different forms of entertainment, 365 days a year.

Barbara Zanetti, executive director of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, noted that, while Stockbridge currently relies on tourism, the chamber is constantly looking for ways to grow the town and slowly move away from that necessity.

“We are a small community with just under 2,000 residents, but we have so much to offer as far as culture,” she said.

Along Main Street alone, one can find the Stockbridge Library, banks and real-estate offices, the Red Lion Inn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Austen Riggs Center, the Mission House Museum, and many more.

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $10.13
Commercial Tax Rate: $10.13
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which celebrates 50 years of exhibits this year. The museum holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art, and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work.

Another popular destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s most beloved music festivals. The 2019 Tanglewood season included everything from performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to showcases for up-and-coming artists.

During the warmer months, outdoor activities abound, Kerswill noted, and suggested visitors take a moment to explore nature in and around Stockbridge.

“Bring your kayak up here, get out on the water, and just let your body de-stress for a couple of hours,” she said. “And then take in the surroundings.”

The natural resources, hiking, and beauty of the countryside are a few things that Zanetti says consistently keep people coming to the area, in addition to the arts and cultural aspects that draw a steady flow of visitors.

And though some activities may slow down during the offseason, Kerswill said few close during the colder months. “There’s just this amazing bit of culture that happens. Whether you live here or whether you’re visiting, you will find something regardless of the time of year.”

Best of Both Worlds

While Stockbridge has the feel of being in the countryside, Kerswill says anything a person could need is only a short drive away.

“We like the small-town New England feel, but you’re also not too far from all the conveniences you need,” she said. “It’s like this illusion of living in the country, but you’re surrounded by everything you need, so nothing is really inconvenient.”

All it takes, she said, is a little bit of research to find a plethora of activities to explore in town.

“I think, unless people really get to know the town, they don’t really realize just how much there is here,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds, for sure.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

Margaret Kerswill has a couple of good views of Stockbridge’s business community. One is as president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce. The other is from her storefront window on Main Street.

“I think there’s a real appeal that’s well-defined in our town’s tagline, which is ‘a quintessential New England town.’ It feels small; it feels intimate,” said Kerswill, co-owner with her wife, Laureen Vizza, of Mutability in Motion, a downtown store that sells crafts handmade by artisans from across the U.S., many of them local.

“There’s a connection between people in town,” she went on. ‘When you walk through town in the morning, just about everyone says ‘good morning’ to you. There’s a very nice atmosphere about Stockbridge.”

Still, outsiders often peg the community as a tourist destination — which is certainly is — and not much else, and are surprised to find a bustling local economy that doesn’t shut down during slow tourism seasons.

“I know being in my shop, a lot of the visitors who come, who have never been here, are often surprised to see businesses stay open year-round,” Kerswill said. “When they visit other tourist areas at the beginning and end of the season, a lot of those restaurants and shops close down. We’re a small town, so most of our foot traffic is in the summer season, but we’re still here year-round, serving local regulars.”

Still, Stockbridge relies heavily on tourism and visitorship for economic development. With a population of just under 2,000 — ranking it in the bottom sixth in the Commonwealth — the community doesn’t have a deep well of residents or businesses from which to draw tax revenue, but it does boast a widely noted series of destination attractions, from Tanglewood to the Norman Rockwell Museum; from the Berkshire Theatre Festival to Berkshire Botanical Garden.

Other attractions continue to emerge as well, including the oft-delayed Elm Court project by Travaasa Berkshire County, which will turn the historic Elm Court Estate into a resort featuring 112 hotel rooms, a 60-seat restaurant, and a 15,000-square-foot spa.

The property, which sits on the border of Stockbridge and Lenox on Old Stockbridge Road, was constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt, completed a series of renovations in 1919, and evolved into an inn in the ’40s and ’50s, hosting dinners, events, and overnight accommodations. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The project to renovate it began six years ago when Front Yard purchased the estate from the Berle family, who had run a boutique, wedding-oriented hotel there from 2002 to 2009. Eight neighbors appealed the 2015 approval of the resort by the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals, but the Massachusetts Land Court eventually ruled in favor of the developer, Front Yard LLC. This past summer, Front Yard asked the Stockbridge Select Board for — and received — an extension of the permit which would have expired last month. Construction is expected to begin in the spring.

Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is developing a $33 million construction project at Tanglewood, a four-building complex that will house rehearsal and performance space for the Tanglewood Music Center as well as a new education venture known as the Tanglewood Learning Institute — the first weatherized, all-season structure at Tanglewood, which the BSO plans to make available for events beyond the summer months.

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts,” Kerswill said. “We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts. On one hand, we have the feel of country living, but we have the convenience of Manhattan two hours away, Albany 45 minutes away, Boston two hours away, and all the culture in our immediate area. It’s remarkable. That’s why I’m here — the culture and the arts.”

Community Ties

As chamber president, Kerswill leads a member base that’s smaller than most chambers, but “strong and loyal,” as she called it.

“We do some chamber-related functions to connect,” she said, “and we also have tri-town chamber mixers with people from Lenox and Lee, where we get together and share experiences in an informal setting over cocktails for a couple hours.”

Margaret Kerswill

Margaret Kerswill

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts. We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts.”

The chamber also presents an annual event to honor members and businesses, alternating between an individual one year and a company the next. On top of that, it puts on two major events. One is the three-day Main Street at Christmas festival — slated this year for Nov. 30 through Dec. 2 — which brings thousands of people into town with activities for families and children, concerts, caroling at the Red Lion Inn, and self-guided house tours. On Sunday, Main Street closes down for several hours, antique cars are brought in, and the strip transforms into a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

That follows a summer arts and crafts fair each August, a weekend-long event that always sells out its vendor capacity, she said. “There’s no entry fee for patrons, and people freely walk around and come and go as they please. That brings a lot of people to town, at a time when summer is winding down and there’s less traffic.”

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947 (2010)
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.76
Commercial Tax Rate: $9.76
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels when it comes to its status as a desirable town for tourists and residents alike, a visionary project committee was formed by Stockbridge officials several years ago to develop recommendations that could be implemented over the next 20 years. The committee issued a report in 2016 titled “Planning a Way Forward.”

That report noted that residents value the town’s cultural institutions and historic buildings; its open space, recreation sites, and walking trails; and its downtown (although many would like to see additional shops and services, as well as more parking). Meanwhile, they want to see smart housing growth that takes into account the community’s aging population, as well as additional transportation options and better accommodation of walkers and bicyclists.

As a result, the document envisioned a Stockbridge in 2036 that mixes the traditional strengths of tourism, culture, and creative economy with green- and technology-based businesses, food production from local farmers, and agri-tourism. The ideal community would also be less auto-reliant, expanding pedestrian networks, bicycle infrastructure, and regional bus and ride-sharing services.

The report also predicts a socially and economically diverse population that provides equally diverse housing options, from apartments and condominiums to smaller single-family homes, co-housing projects, and historic ‘Berkshire cottages.’ These include a mix of sustainable new construction and repurposed buildings, including the preservation of older homes, along with an increase of people living close to the town center, including mixed-use buildings with apartments over shops to support downtown businesses.

While the overall vision may be ambitious, it encompasses the sorts of goals a town of Stockbridge’s size can reasonably set when looking to move into its next era.

Blast from the Past

Kerswill, for one, is happy she and Vizza set up shop in Stockbridge — right next to the Red Lion Inn, in fact, which is in many ways the heart of the downtown business culture.

“It’s a great experience being in downtown in Stockbridge,” she told BusinessWest. “We don’t have any chain stores or restaurant franchises. We are all independently owned, and the chances are good, when you pop into one of our stores, that you’re going to be meeting the owner. It becomes a very personal experience because of that.”

As for the Red Lion itself, “it’s cozy and intimate,” she went on, “and they’ve modernized with things that people expect, like wi-fi, but you still get a real, old-fashioned experience, and I think people really crave that. I know I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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