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Construction Woes Return For Great Barrington Businesses

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Railroad Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

As Great Barrington prepares for state-funded improvements to its downtown, some business owners have concerns about how the construction will affect commerce.

Chris Rembold is Great Barrington’s Town Planner.

“The MassWorks program funds public infrastructure that supports economic development and housing, particularly in downtown areas, walkable areas, smart growth locations,” said Rembold.

He told WAMC that Great Barrington began its MassWorks project application in 2015, intending to use the funds to redevelop the sidewalks of Bridge Street and Bentley Avenue.

“But we were able to, earlier this year, shift some of the money over to do improvements to the sidewalks and roadways on Railroad Street and Church Street and Elm Street," Rembold said. "Those were streets that we had designed five or six years ago and we didn’t have the funding for it. Now we’re able to program the funding over there and we hope to start all the work beginning in August.”

$1 million of the full $2.1 million MassWorks grant will go into the project, which Rembold says will be less extensive than the 2014 to 2016 reconstruction of Main Street, which encompassed sidewalks, buildings, storm water, infrastructure, and trees.

“This street improvement project is more straightforward, more simple," he said. "We think it will be less intrusive but will result in new sidewalks, new roadways, and some trees, to make the downtown streetscape safer and more inviting.”

“We keep getting funds for making things look better, for better sidewalks, but we’re not looking into how to make it easier for people to come to town," said Susan Kiesel, who has worked at Karen Allen Fiber Arts on Railroad Street for all of its 14 years.

“People right now walk in the door, and the first thing they say is, if there was a parking space, I was going to stop. If not, I was going to just forget it," said Kiesel. "And over the years, people have stopped coming because they say, I don’t like having parking be an ordeal, and it is an ordeal.”

For her, the news of more construction is foreboding.

“It’s traffic, is an issue, and that comes with the construction, and it’s parking that’s an issue, which has not been addressed in all the years that I’ve been here," she said. "We’ve just seen reduced parking.”

Kiesel says Great Barrington needs to match its enthusiasm for attracting new businesses with practical planning.

“Everybody come, it’s going to be a cultural district — that’s great, but you know, where are they going to park?” she asked.

“There is a place where we just lost 20 parking spaces based on a new group of apartments and business that have come in,” said Karen Allen.

She characterizes the last round of construction as “horrible.”

“It’s a bit daunting to be dealing with having to go through another one, and there were many many businesses that did not survive the Main Street reconstruction," said Allen. "We did by the skin of our teeth, as they say.”

Between new development and the prospect of construction, Allen is worried again.

“We’re having a hard time finding parking spaces for the businesses that have been there for years and years and years, much less now we’re losing spaces and gaining businesses” she told WAMC.

“There’s so many small downtowns that don’t thrive because they don’t have the parking, and I’m afraid that we’re going to end up that way," said Kiesel. "I mean, we already feel it. Every year, more and more of our regular customers saying I just don’t want to deal with it anymore.”

“We’ve been really cognizant of the parking problems downtown. Where we have parking spaces, we want to maintain them to the extent we can, both after construction and during construction," said Rembold. He says the city wants to minimize disruptions to businesses downtown. “Unfortunately in some cases where there’s parking on really narrow streets, we may lose those spaces.”

Rembold said the selectboard has directed the planning board to go back and find ways to staunch the bleeding as much as possible.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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