Lenox in the Berkshires: Down and Out?

Nora Caplan-Bricker recently wrote a piece for Boston Magazine – “Down and Out in the Berkshires.”

Down and Out? My comments on her piece follow.

As you point out correctly in your next paragraph, the Berkshires are going through a transition from manufacturing to an area where tourism is dominant. And for better or worse, the tourism industry needs low-paying workers. The good news is that these workers can live in Pittsfield where housing is very affordable. Supply – demand pressures will work these matters out. If there are not sufficient workers at existing wages, they will increase. The manufacturing to tourism transition is at least partly reflected in the following table on assessed values. From 2003 to 2019, assessed values in Lenox grew slowly. This is at least in part because of the downward pressure on prices when the GE corporate executives moved out. But note that in the last 5 years, Lenox assessed value increases were tops in the Berkshires. Of course, assessed value growth out here does not compare with what is happening in Boston. But this discrepancy is good for the Berkshires because increasingly, people don’t have to live where they work. That means both Boston and NYC are making the Berkshires appear more attractive, if not to live, to visit.

Nora: In your first two paragraphs, you highlight the positive attributes of the region. I agree, and it is getting better. The Cranwell Resort was just purchased by Miraval for $20 million and is now investing another $60 million in it. Canyon Ranch just built and sold 19 condos going for between $1 and $3 million each. And as you probably know, Tanglewood just spent $33 million on a new building so it can offer performances year-round. All of the above are taking place in Lenox, the “crown prince” of Berkshire towns.

You then say: “But this slice of western Massachusetts has never had much clout in Boston and is peripheral in ways that go beyond mere geography. The four western counties combined have only 22 of the 160 state representatives and five of the 40 state senators; Berkshire County’s legislative voices number four in the lower chamber and Senator Adam Hinds in the higher one.”

Hm. Populations of the 4 western counties (Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire) constitute 12.1% of the State; 22 state reps are 13.7% of the total, and 4 state senators are 12.5% of all senators. As a Berkshire resident, I am happy with our representation.

You also say: “the Berkshires can’t compete against the more populous counties to the east for enough affordable housing dollars to beat back the tide of second-home buyers driving up the cost of limited housing stock.” I view the second home buyers as a godsend. If we so chose, we can use the additional tax dollars coming from them to add to our affordable care properties.

For the record, the following table provides affordable care data. The Lenox performance is not all that bad….

You say: “As New England’s ritziest mountain playground struggles to secure its future, the question on locals’ minds remains the same: Why is Massachusetts leaving us behind?” I can tell you that is not on my mind. I note that despite all that NY is spending to promote tourism, we are doing quite well.

You go on to say people are leaving. Well, according to the 2010 Census they were leaving but the 2020 Census results will be interesting. In the digital world, things might start to turn around. I know a number of younger couples with children who have moved here from either New York or Boston. Why? Because our schools’ MCAS test scores are right up there with those to the east. And parents are able to perform their jobs on the web with infrequent visits to see their clients in the cities. On broadband, most of the Berkshire is being supplied with speeds that are the same as in downtown Boston. And if you want higher speeds, you can get them as well.

One group that is definitely leaving are the graduates from our good schools. I believe young people who grow up in rural areas should go to cites, like you did. City experiences are needed in this rapidly changing world.

You quote Butler of 1Berkshire: “There’s a corridor of innovation and technology from eastern Mass. to the nanotech hub in Albany that goes through the Berkshires, but we’re this geographic hub in the middle that doesn’t get attached to it in an intentional way….” I am not a fan of monies spent to attract hi-tech to the Berkshires. It is a tourist region with very high quality of life…. Were I to be critical, it would be of the leaders of North Adams and Pittsfield. FBI data indicate that North Adams has the highest violent crime rate in the State with Pittsfield just behind as the fourth worst. And rather than focusing on this problem and take meaningful action to deal with it, the governments try to cover it up. But tourists become aware of it and MASS MoCA, with the millions the State has invested in it, is in the middle of it in North Adams.

You say: “Indeed, it is individual New Yorkers, not the state of Massachusetts, who are making the biggest investment in the Berkshires. In April, a rapturous piece in the real estate section of the New York Times described the region’s growth as creating a “cultural corridor,” much of it driven by Manhattanites who fell in love with western Massachusetts.” Very true, and the high standards of Manhattanites keeps the Berkshire service providers on their toes – we have good restaurants, retail shops, etc.

Would spending serious money marketing the Berkshires help to spur tourism? Maybe. But maybe we should just carry on and try to avoid “messing things up.”

P.S. I am looking forward to walking the 30 minutes to Tanglewood this summer and using my Lenox Resident $100 lawn pass for the season to attend whatever performances I want. And that view looking southwest over the lakes and hills….

The content above was saved on the old Morss Global Finance website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of archive.org):
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