Multi-million-dollar developments in the Berkshires
Photo by Anastasia Stanmeyer
An update on three multi-million-dollar developments that are slowly–but surely—on their way to reaching their goals.
Projects up and down Berkshire County offer enticing promises—of more jobs, better infrastructure, greater money flow, more visitors and residents—but the time from announcement to completion can move glacially slow and raise questions about whether they will ever happen. Cory Thurston, executive director of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, which oversees the development of the 52-acre William Stanley Business Park, has seen that dynamic in action.
Thurston believes that every development has a cause and effect that pushes other projects forward. They feed off each other, spur each other on. That’s partly what he had in mind when he tossed the park’s hat into a list of sites suitable for Amazon’s new headquarters. It’s less about whether it becomes the new site—although that would be really nice—and more about getting its name out there nationally as a good place for businesses to come looking.
“In the six years I’ve been here,” Thurston says, “this has been the most active year in new development.” He has been courting a plastics company in Florida to put a new manufacturing facility in the park, but most of the efforts have been more regional. A couple of Berkshire County businesses looking to expand have also expressed interest, and older projects like Waterstone’s Super Walmart proposal and the Berkshire Innovation Center are still in the works.
The 20,000-square-foot Innovation Center revealed a $3-million funding gap that stalled construction. The Pittsfield City Council committed one million dollars to match two million dollars from the state. “We’re just waiting for word that the state has kept its promise.”
In Great Barrington, the Berkshire Co-op has been able to move more swiftly than some projects, partly due to its built-in system for fundraising—its membership. The project, a newly constructed grocery store on Bridge Street, has seen members put in nearly half of the Co-op’s $3.6 million portion. Preparing the site for development begins this winter. “It will be a construction zone for a year,” says Co-op GM Daniel Esko. “We’re budgeting and planning nonstop operations through construction.”
Demolition of the old Laramee’s building is expected by early January. The Co-op’s current location has seen sales double to $8 million, but the new space should allow it to do even better with a significantly expanded grocery market and a bigger café to host community events, Esko says. “By increasing our scale, our volume, we can lower profit margins, and that’s part of the strategy of bringing more people in.”
The Co-op is the anchor of a project by Benchmark Development called Powerhouse Square, which will feature condos on the upper floors and retail on the ground. (Another development within walking distance is the 47 Railroad Street building, which is being transformed into a retail and apartment complex.)
On a massively larger scale, when Thomas Krens announced his transformative plan for North Adams nearly two years ago, the center of his vision was his Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, which would inhabit the city’s Heritage State Park and be accompanied by multiple other projects in the downtown area. Former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld were enlisted to help procure state funding.
The project reached an energetic point in the summer of 2016 but has faced setbacks and a shift to increased private fundraising. Outgoing North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright thinks that it may be a blessing in the long run.
“You talk to anyone in the administration now who does this, and they aren’t happy to look at projects that are 80-percent state money,” Alcombright says. “They want to see the private sector come in and then the government will come in with public infrastructure to support it.”
This past summer, it was announced that renowned architect Frank Gehry would design the museum building, an effort to energize fundraising. Krens also announced the additions of a motorcycle museum and a museum of American art. But in October, the hoped-for MassWorks grant for crucial demolition work and the required rebuilding of a bridge did not happen. Construction of the museum cannot move ahead without that work.
Alcombright believes it got turned down because the option to buy the park, which would have shown stronger intent to the state, had not been exercised. He also thinks that can be corrected when they reapply next year. The total cost for the project is $65 million. The organization reported in fall that it has raised $2.5 million, which serves as planning money, not construction money. They intend to raise another $2.5 million to pay the architect.
“If Tom is able through these next several months to secure the private sector investment,” says Alcombright, “I think securing the state money would become much easier.”