On Second Thought
A surge of weekend homeowners pushes boundaries
Rouge owner Maggie Merelle mingles with patrons. The bar has a fairly even mix of locals, visitors, and part-time residents who have found their “spot.”
Photo by Scott Barrow
Berkshire County has long been an escape for city dwellers looking to breathe fresh country air. The Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Melvilles—all set up grand cottages in the region, many of which have become historical destinations. But the swell of second homeowners, especially in the last decade, has caused a cultural shift even in the remotest Berkshire towns, forcing full-timers to rethink their idea of “community.”
“The economy for contractors is good in this town, and that’s because we have second homeowners,” says Sheffield-based builder Ralph Lombardi. He moved to the Berkshires— “from the rat race” in New Jersey—nearly 25 years ago to raise a family and build a business as a contractor. At least half his clientele are part-time residents who call him every time they need work done. The repeat business is his lifeblood, especially through the slow winter months.
“Around January and February things get pretty slow,” Lombardi says. “But I can rely on steady work, especially leading up to the holidays— Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, early spring—because second homeowners are coming here year-round, almost every weekend.”
The number of part-time residents in the Berkshires has climbed to nearly 30 percent, according to a recent report issued by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The percentage of housing units used as second homes ranges from a whopping 60 percent in Otis (57 percent in neighboring Monterey) to a still-sizable 34 percent or so in places like Alford, Egremont, New Marlborough, and Mount Washington. Conversely, many of the towns with the highest second-ownership rates also have the most cost-burdened renters, meaning that more than 30 percent (often closer to 40 percent) of their monthly earnings goes toward rent. This is a “growing pain” of a community ripe with opportunity, says Maggie Merelle, co-owner of Rouge restaurant in West Stockbridge, and a real-estate agent for William Pitt Sotheby’s.
“When we first opened Rouge 16 years ago, I was told by another local business owner that we’d never make it. I mean, West Stockbridge then, there was tumbleweed in the street,” says Merelle. “But we survived by becoming a destination. We’re constantly reinventing ourselves throughout the year with wine dinners, burger night, and social media. It’s a hustle.”
On any given evening, the bar at Rouge is a fairly even mix of Berkshire locals, visitors from nearby Albany, and part-time residents who have found their “spot.” This growing mélange is what inspired Merelle to try her hand at real estate. She says most of her clients hail from Boston, New York, the West Coast, and, more recently, Washington, D.C. And she sees their interest in the area as beneficial to full-time residents.
“This is not your typical vacation town,” Merelle says. “We have people who come here loyally on the weekends and want to be a part of this community. And many local people have made a decent living, and retirement for that matter, off of the consistent business of second homeowners.”
Chuck Leach, president of Lee Bank, is also heartened by the influx of second homeowners. As a member of a focus group for the Berkshire Taconic report (which includes data from neighboring Dutchess, Columbia, and Litchfield counties), he says issues such as the opioid epidemic, growing poverty rates, a lack of skilled workers, and a lack of affordable housing are not surprising revelations.
“There is a sort of issue fatigue that people are feeling,” Leach says. “And yes, the issues that are highlighted in the report—especially jobs and the economy, and infrastructure—need to be addressed. But the people coming here really want to put down roots and invest in the community. They really like the local aspect. They like getting involved, and they have the savvy and the capital to do that. That’s a definite positive.”
It’s not just parttime residents who are looking to invest in the Berkshires. Leach says that at least 50 percent of Lee Bank clients are longtime residents and business owners who have worked hard for years and are looking for help managing the fruits of their labors, which is why the bank has added investment and planning services to its roster of products. Because of the changing demographic, the bank, much like many other businesses across the county, decided to expand its scope beyond the “typical community-bank model.”
“Independent community banks have a tremendous amount of opportunity ahead,” Leach says. “However, we need to be on our game. We need to evolve and remain proactive. The alternative is that we run the risk of becoming irrelevant.”
Cultural institutions are taking that advice to heart. In fact, many are leading the way as architects of a “creative hospitality” model that is driving the area’s economy as waves of visitors to the Berkshires transition to becoming part-time residents. Rebecka McDougall, communications director at The Mount in Lenox, says a key element to survival is to step out of the seasonal bubble.
“Typically, the Mount will close for the season at the end of October, and then we will go into the off-season programming,” she says. “But in talking with other businesses—B&B owners, retailers—it became important to be open for more than that. People need access to culture during all the months. They look forward to it, it’s a big draw, and it’s important to staying relevant to the local population as well as encouraging second homeowners to come back every weekend. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Why is that a bad thing?”
It’s not for Lombardi, who has benefited from having solid relationships with all his clients, especially part-time residents. “I own my own home. I have a good life, in a beautiful place. Why bite the hand that feeds me?”