The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and private investment group Mill Town Capital have released a new plan to develop the region’s outdoor recreation resources. It comes at a time when many of us are turning to outdoor recreation to get through the pandemic.
The partners released an over 200-page report on how the county can invest in its natural offerings.
“We’ve been looking at the Berkshires in different ways to improve just overall the quality of life here, both for the residents and to attract new residents and to attract different visitor bases," said Carrie Holland. "And so it’s sort of a constant iteration we go through of ‘what are the projects that really resonate with different groups, and what are high potential growth areas for the Berkshires?’”
Holland is the managing director of Mill Town Capital. Based in Pittsfield, the firm owns real estate and commercial properties across the city – including the recent acquisition of its ski resort, Bousquet.
“For the last year, year and a half or so we’ve really been narrowing down on outdoor recreation as an overall theme for our sort of investment and philanthropy focus," she told WAMC. "That’s in part kind of how the realization that a lot of us live in the Berkshires and have chosen to live in the Berkshires because of the easy outdoor access that we enjoy here. And so we said, we all like it, anecdotally. There must be something to it. And maybe this is a great area to further develop and build additional infrastructure and just further highlight.”
Mill Town turned to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to carry out a study of the area’s resources, funding its inventory of outdoor recreation assets and public surveys of county residents, business owners, and land managers. Analysis of those findings produced the final planning document.
“Well, it’s the first of its kind for our region," said Laura Brennan. "We have a few municipalities in Berkshire County that have their own individual outdoor space and reaction plans, but something like this as comprehensive and far-reaching as the entire county is new.”
Brennan is a senior planner for community and economic development at the BRPC. She says the study highlighted areas where collaboration would allow the county’s outdoor recreational offerings to flourish.
“We have some facilities that are in need of updating, we have a lack of real communication or a central place where people can find information about trails, boat launches, and all of the different ways that you can enjoy the outdoors," she told WAMC. "And there are certainly points of conflict between different user groups where people want to use the same trail for different types of activities, but by and large people are very interested in finding ways to cooperate and finding ways to work better together in the future.”
Brennan picked one of the county’s most popular outdoor offerings as an example of the plan’s guidance: hiking.
“There are a small handful of properties that are probably overused, and lots of hiking opportunities that are lesser known, not as well marked," she said. "People who are making recommendations to visitors don’t know about them, and so they keep sending visitors to the same sites over and over again.”
But before visitors are farmed out to those lesser known locations, there’s infrastructure work to be done.
“And that’s to better mark the trails, provide better and increased parking at the trailheads, do better signage as people are entering trails as that they understand what they might encounter, what the safety concerns may be, how to contact somebody in case of emergency," said Brennan. "And there are all different land managers and land owners that have to address these things on their own properties.”
Brennan acknowledges that it will be a piecemeal process, with a third of the Berkshires’ over 600,000 acres of open space in private ownership. Despite the broader hurdles, some initiatives are already underway.
“For instance, we have the recent purchase of Hanging Mountain in Sandisfield, which a major partner is the Western Mass Climbers Coalition," said Brennan. "This is a huge step in providing access to outdoor rock climbing, which has not been available in the Berkshires to this scale, certainly, ever before. And so the fact that they have acquired this property and they’re going to be developing trails, developing parking and amenities, really changes the game for us as a region in terms of who we can attract for outdoor recreation activity.”