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Great Barrington To Explore Buying Fairgrounds

A screenshot of a Zoom meeting with five participants
Josh Landes
The Great Barrington selectboard's special virtual meeeting on January 27th, 2021.

The Great Barrington, Massachusetts selectboard says it’s considering purchasing fairgrounds that have sat rotting and unused for years just south of town center.

Acquiring the land, which previously hosted fairs and horse racing, was raised at a special meeting held virtually Wednesday night.

“We’re not getting any tax benefit from it at the moment, so there’s that. But I just think it could be a great asset to the town," said selectboard member Bill Cooke, who envisioned the site becoming a park. “I think we could also have any number of events there. We could put in a skating rink for wintertime stuff, we could put in picnic tables – that sort of thing, just a simple little park if nothing else. And clean it up and knock down some of those dangerous buildings and make it look presentable for the south end of town.”

State money could back the endeavor.

“There’s a Massachusetts park grant, which is parkland acquisition and renovations for communities – which this fall right into, and it’s up to $400,000 available to individual communities,” said Cooke.

“That land could have a lot of uses. It actually abuts the Little League field that’s down there. They connect. Also the trails," said selectboard chair Steve Bannon. “Right now, as part of the gateway to the down – nothing to be proud of.”

Cooke noted that the land could be used to resolve questions around extending Great Barrington’s Housatonic River Walk, the footpath that follows the town’s main waterway from north to south.

“It would be connecting the senior living in the south end of town to downtown to the fairgrounds – it all kind of comes together,” he said.

The last party interested in the property was Suffolk Downs, the horse racing business long based in Boston. While it promised to put millions into restoring the site to its former glory as the new home for racing operations, there was pushback in the community about its potential impact on the town’s infrastructure, as well as concerns around the treatment of animals by the industry.

Selectboard member Leigh Davis asked Cooke about a potential conflict with that offer.

“I guess it’s appropriate to ask just to get clarification that the Suffolk Downs proposal that was before us approximately a year ago – it’s not happening?” she asked.

“I don’t think they’re coming back," said Cooke.

In a vote, Town Manager Mark Pruhenski was directed to explore pursuing the purchase. He noted to the selectboard that another of the town’s ongoing goals – expanding parking downtown – could come in conflict with buying the fairgrounds.

“Maybe we should consider choosing one of these two options rather than pursuing both at the same time, since the funding source would be the sale of real estate for both," said Pruhenski. "And I believe the account balance at the point is just over $675,000 in that account.”

While the vote on the purchase was exploratory in nature, it provoked the ire of former selectboard member Dan Bailey – no stranger to emotional outbursts at public meetings – who suggested the plan was both unwise and benefited only the southern portion of the community.

“I’m just curious if one of you was in Maryland and bought a winning lottery ticket," said Bailey. "It seems like you guys, what I’m hearing is, you’re willing to spend a lot of the town’s money. And I’m just curious if you guys have more friends who have piece of crap land that you’re willing to buy. Because if you’re interested, I’ll sell you mine.”

Selectboard member Ed Abrahams underscored that any purchase order wouldn’t come independently from the town’s government.

“We present ideas, we explore ideas, we don’t spend money – town meeting does," he said. "So anything that costs money has to appeal to a majority of voters at town meeting, and can’t be – if there are special interests for just a few, it probably wouldn’t pass. So any money spent on parks or parking or anything else like that goes through town meeting.”

Great Barrington’s annual town meeting will take place June 7th and June 10th at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

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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