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Federal Grant Will Fund Review of Lee Mill Complex

Jim Levulis

Congressman Richard Neal was in Lee, Massachusetts Tuesday to announce federal funding for a vacant mill.

Neal joined state and local representatives at the Eagle Mill complex on West Center Street in Lee. In the shadow of a building that dates back to 1857, Neal announced a $115,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The money comes from the agency’s Brownfield Grant program and will support an assessment of the roughly six-acre site to determine if it’s contaminated. Neal says federal grants like this one can help put rundown properties back on the tax roll.

“For many years we tried what is known as ‘polluter pays,’” Neal said. “We tried valiantly. The difficulty is after 150 years it’s hard to figure out who actually dumped what into the water or who dumped what into the floor of these old buildings.”

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and an EPA-contracted company will begin the assessment later this summer. Great Barrington developer Jeff Cohen and a team from Mill Renaissance LLC has proposed plans to retrofit existing buildings with historical value and construct new ones at the former paper mill site along the Housatonic River. Rich Vinette is part of that team, having done pre-development work on the site as the former executive director of the Lee Community Development Corporation.

“Without public participation projects like this just never go,” Vinette said. “You can ask anybody who’s been involved with these things. It’s a game changer for Lee. $60 million in private money. The leverage that some public participation will give is just incredible.”

Vinette outlined a five-year plan incorporating up to 16 buildings that would include a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments. He says the estimated 122 units would be complimented by small retail space and a river walkway open to the public.

“We’ve done a great job on Main Street,” Vinette said. “We have things going on. Now we have to have some state-of-the-art, very affordable and amenity-filled living space. So there’s going to be some housing here and perhaps some underground parking.”

Dave Consolati chairs Lee’s Select Board. He says for Lee to keep its manufacturing background, which has seen its ups and downs like many areas, there needs to be apartments for young workers to stay and eventually put down roots.

“Then it’s a house, it’s the grocery store, it’s the gas and it’s the hardware store,” Consolati said. “Everything builds upon one thing or another. We don’t have a section of workforce housing. Housing that’s affordable for people who have decent-paying jobs and can go forward. This has been a difficult project. We’ve had a number of fits and starts.”

Vinette says multiple businesses are already expressing interest in the retail space. He mentioned the Stockbridge-based Red Lion Inn is considering a 60-room boutique hotel at the complex. The Eagle, Columbia, Greylock and Niagara Mills shut down in 2008 putting nearly 170 people out of work. Since then multiple plans for redevelopment have failed to come to fruition. But, Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox says this one has a good chance of being more than just diagrams on paper.

“There’s been a lot of interest over the last couple years with all the vacant mills in Lee,” Pignatelli said. “But there’s something that brings people back to this location. And as part of the revitalization of the downtown, this one has legs.”

The grant is part of a round from the EPA totaling nearly $5 million announced in May supporting Brownfield cleanup projects in Chicopee, Holyoke and Springfield

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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