Developers Update Plans For Great Barrington Hotel, Skepticism Abounds
Developers have updated plans for a proposed hotel at a shuttered Great Barrington school in hopes of preserving the building’s heritage, but some in town don’t think that’s enough.The Mahida family, which has a string of hotels in the Berkshires, updated plans for a 95-room hotel at the Searles School on Bridge Street in Great Barrington during a lengthy public hearing Wednesday. The $25 million effort needs approval from the Select Board since a town bylaw limits hotels to 45 rooms unless historical and cultural preservation is part of the project. But there was public outcry over concerns that the original plans would destroy the 116-year-old building and its heritage. Project architect Rolf Biggers says now the central facades will be maintained and the sides will be replicated, while interior elements will be reused.
“As you come through this building, not only as you approach it from the outside, but as you walk through the inside you’re going to get the aura, feel and essence of what was there previously,” said Biggers.
Biggers says doors, flooring and clocks will be reused. They will even repurpose an emergency shower from a chemistry lab in the pool area. The developer’s presentation lasted about 90 minutes with engineers and others detailing site plans and the hotel’s impact on the town. With a 60-seat restaurant planned, the project is expected to create 30 full-time jobs and 30 construction jobs. One hundred forty-four parking spaces would be available, 40 of which would be off-site valet.
Afterwards, some of the more than 100 people in attendance voiced their opinions on the project. Among them was town Historical Commission Chair Paul Ivory.
“I want to emphasize that our conclusion that this building is architectural, culturally and historically significant applies to the entire building, not a piece, section or portions of it,” said Ivory.
Attorney Jeremiah Pollard spoke for a group of Great Barrington residents he says formed in support of town bylaws.
“What the bylaw gives an exemption for the 45-room limit is a project allows for the deviation from the room [limit] when the hotels and motels are proposed as a component of a project that redevelops or reuses historic structures,” Pollard said. “It doesn’t say a project that redevelops or reuses a component of historic structures.”
What constitutes historical preservation lies with the five-member Select Board, which is continuing the public hearing on January 20. Former selectmen Tony Blair chaired the school reuse task force when the town owned Searles. Closed for about 10 years due to regional consolidation, the Iredale family now owns it.
“I’ve watched this building deteriorate for the last 10 years,” Blair said. “I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy as did many people trying to make something good happen with this property. This is the best possible reuse that you’re to going ever see come down the pike for this piece of property.”
Gary Happ runs Barrington Brewery and the Crissey Farm banquet facility in town.
“There is a shortage of hotel rooms in Great Barrington,” Happ said. “And anyone that tells you different than that is wrong. There are not enough rooms to accommodate the number of tourists who come to this town and make no mistake about it…all the money that comes into this town for people like myself who own commercial properties and rent them come from the tourists that support the businesses that are in those buildings. We need the tourists.”
Opponents say 60 area businesses signed a petition against the project. Developers say the hotel will bring $450,000 in yearly tax revenue to the town. They say a local accounting firm found that number to be at least $575,000 based on occupancy rates and revenue projections. People at the hearing questioned those figures and the ability of the hotel to draw guests. Vijay Mahida says he wants to help his town without utilizing taxpayers’ money. He echoed his wife’s sentiment of discouragement about people predicting the hotel’s failure.
“If anybody could have reached me I’d be happy to sit down with them and talk to them in detail about my project,” Mahida said. “Somebody from this town who doesn’t even know the Great Barrington and Berkshire lodging market predicting that this project will fail…that’s very, very sad.”
Maya Conte is among those concerned about changing Great Barrington’s village-like feel.
“This is a project that actually will divide our community,” Conte said. “It will focus the heart of our town and our village on strangers coming in and visiting versus having a place where we can gather and build community.”
The meeting adjourned after roughly three and a half hours. Select Board Chair Sean Stanton says with the updated plans and the significant amount of public input, he doesn’t expect the board to vote on the project during the January 20th meeting.