Becket, Massachusetts is a rural Berkshire community of just under 2,000 in the wooded hills of the county’s eastern edge. This week, WAMC spoke with select board vice chair Michael Lavery about how the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn is affecting the town. Dance center Jacob’s Pillow, one of Becket’s biggest cultural landmarks, canceled its summer festival for the first time in its 88-year history. Last month, Lavery was re-elected to a second term.
LAVERY: Becket has a lot of second homeowners but also the tax rolls are filled out by four, at least four big camp communities, overnight camps. Three out of those four, Camp Becket, which is called Chimney Corners, Camp Watitoh and Becket and Otis share Camp Lenox- They decided early on to close for the year. While it was a financial stressor for them, they had to endure. Camp Greylock decided that they might try to obey the governor's orders and they thought they were in phase three, as we learned last week. At the last minute they were changed to phase four, overnight camps. And Camp Greylock, from what I understand, had spent thousands to get personal protective equipment- And so they incurred more of a financial burden by trying to obey the laws and won't be able to open 'til summer of 2021.
WAMC: Another high profile closure for Becket is Jacob's Pillow, the dance center. What impact is that closure having on the community?
I know thereare local residents that work there. It's not our biggest employer. I'm sure there are folks who miss it, on a personal level. As residents we would go- I took my kids to the in and out, indoors out- You'll have to get the correct thing from their website- But it's the outdoor thing that they have for free, for the community. Pamela Tatge decided early on and had the board's backing to close. It was a tough call but I think the right call in the end. I think it will affect them, their, their company, they had internal restaurants and places you could get souvenirs and things- There weren't there- Becket doesn't have very many restaurants or associated places to hang out sort of in town, like Lenox, where Tanglewood is, has such a vibrant downtown community. Becket, we don't really have that. So I think the Pillow themselves will suffer the most and that could in turn affect folks in town that work there.
Let's turn to budgeting for 2021. Michael, what impact is COVID-19 having on Becket's financial plans for the coming year?
It's not clear yet. We hope that folks won't be affected too much. Obviously, we get a large part of our tax base from the real estate, from homeowners, second homeowners and from year-round residents. We're hoping that won't be affected and people will pay their taxes on time and as usual, but it's really unclear. We don't, like Pittsfield and other folks might have fingers into the community where they know more about what's going on, like their homeless and their food insecure folks. The town itself isn't really tied in that much with those programs. So it's hard to say. And without being able to leave my house and talk to folks in town, it's really tough. Even my own election, I didn't know there was talk of write-in campaigns and it ended up not being the case. But without being able to door knock and talk to people at restaurants and shake hands, it's really tough, beyond social media.
Do you think moving to remote formats to conduct business in Becket will have long term implications for the community even after COVID-19?
Well, we do want better internet and we're very close to having what's called the high-speed fiber, Last Mile. So in terms of remote, we are trying to keep some of that in the town. We've been using Google Meet and some folks have freeconferencecall.com. We do hope to keep that if the state allows it, for internal meetings and municipal meetings. So I think it has changed the way we operate. It's proven that we can, with the technology, do things remotely. The selectmen have been meeting in person. And it's, it's sort of been a quiet opening to the public. We, we keep the doors unlocked, but we haven't put it on our website that we're open to the public, but as the town, the top town body, we want to make it available for folks to come in and let us know if there's any issues they're having.
Looking into the back half of 2020, what are the biggest things on the docket for Becket?
We're taking part in the municipal vulnerability program, which is state funded and subsidized and it's a grant opportunity. I'm not sure the numbers of towns that are taking part in that, but Becket has a great handle on it. We've got someone who is the head of the Westfield River Scenic, Meredyth Babcock, who's a Becket resident and she's published a great guide and a draft document. So we've experienced flooding in the town and it's wiped out silk factories and things in the early part of the 20th century- And so I think that municipal vulnerability program could fix up some of the roads and culverts and add to our already pretty good, well-maintained road structures. We do have a good full depth reclamation going on, on Yokum Pond, which is county road. It's a cross-road as you come up 20 on the left, there near where the Appalachian Trail goes over and that road's hard to work on because it's at high elevation and a lot of steep, winding roads. So that will be a boon that we've been waiting for a long time. The police department has changed their facade and their internal structure of their offices. It was somewhat due to a- I don't know how much I can reveal to the press, but there was an attempted escape by a person who was being booked. And while they didn't get far, because the town hall and the police department had connecting doors, they were able to sort of get out into the area of the regular town hall. So we're correcting that and it'll make a lot of more room for those officers. This is the bigger ticket items on the on the docket.
Becket has pursued high speed internet for some time. Michael, what's the update on that effort to get high-speed fiber for the town?
Our Becket Broadband Committee has been working hard to get the, the folks from Verizon and the electric company Eversource to finish their, what's called the Last Mile, or- Excuse me, the make ready portion of the campaign, and we're 97% through with that. So we're looking forward to, by the end of August, starting the construction phase, which is when people will actually get fiber to their house. So that starts a 22 month contract with the construction company. We're really thankful to be at the end of this project and getting high-speed fiber internet to the town.