Turning the corner
Charlemont seeing hopeful economic growth
Cold River Package Store with new building in rear. Recorder/Paul Franz
New building behind Cold River Package store in Charlemont will include a cafe. Recorder/Paul Franz
Seth Martin is opening Berkshire Pizza in Charlemont center. Recorder/Paul Franz
Seth Martin of Plainfield is opening Berkshire Pizza in Charlemont Center. Recorder/Paul Franz
CHARLEMONT — The term “ghost town” was tossed around at a recent Economic Roundtable meeting of community leaders, yet seldom has Charlemont seen such an infusion of new business, investment and civic interest in its aging town center as it has over the past year.
It was the village center — with its vacant apartments, empty storefronts, cash-strapped sewer district, and zoning bylaws that slow property redevelopment — that was discussed by local business owners, town officials, and sewer commissioners eager for change.
“I think everybody knows what a ghost town the village has become,” said Karen Hogness, co-owner of the venerable A.L. Avery and Son General Store, who chaired last week’s meeting.
Several committees and residents gave progress reports on efforts to revitalize the village center, and how to make it more welcoming to new businesses, and to give the outdoor adventure tourists more reason to stay in town for meals, lodging or shopping.
The Charlemont Inn is still closed, but the town will have three new eateries this spring. Berkshire East has doubled the size of its ski lodge, adding a restaurant and a bar. Although it will be closed after skiing season, it will reopen with the zip-line tours in May.
Once construction on the new Cold River Package store complex is finished, Charlemont will have a new cafe, along with a larger package store and new market. And a short distance away, the vacant Charlemont Pizza building is being renovated and will open as Berkshire Pizzeria. The owner, Greg Rowehl of Manhattan, has owned a home in West Hawley since 1997, and lived in Ashfield before then. Rowehl is president of Commercial Kitchen Designs in Brooklyn, and this will be his first business in Franklin County.
Over the last five years, Berkshire East has transformed from a winter-only ski-resort to a year-round outdoor center, with skiing, seven zip-line canopy tours, a valley jump tour, and two mountain hikes. A wind turbine and solar array generate enough green-energy electricity to run the facility. Last year, the resort added a 12,000-square-foot addition to its lodge.
This summer, the ski resort will replace its summit triple lift with a faster SkyTrac chair lift that seats four. It also plans to install an Alpine Mountain Coaster on a track along the mountain, which Berkshire East's Jon Schaefer says will be the longest mountain coaster ride in North America.
Last year, Charlemont saw the debut of two new, large sporting events: The Berkshire Highlands Pentathlon, which will be held again this year on April 5; and the U.S. Navy Seals Bone Frog Challenge, which will be held again at Berkshire East on May 17. Both events drew lots of participants and spectators.
Also, Berkshire East, Warfield House Inn and Zoar Outdoor have given public access on their properties for a network of extensive hiking and biking trails — opening up yet another outdoor activity in town.
Hogness told the roundtable group that cellphone reception in town may soon improve, with the construction of a new cell tower, near the wind turbine up at Berkshire East. “We all know that, 10 years ago, some people were against it (cell towers) and some were for it,” she remarked. “But now, they’re absolutely screaming for it.”
Sewers: hidden asset, cost
Part of the town infrastructure needed for new growth is a healthy wastewater treatment facility, and the importance of the Charlemont Sewer District was pointed out by many present. The district is separate from the town and is solely dependent on sewer user fees for its operating costs. The district doesn’t meter sewer use, because the village center doesn’t have a public water system, which would meter water use and calculate sewer use.
“The sewer district is running at about a 20 percent loss per year,” said Sewer Commissioner James Williams. “We have a $150,000 budget per year, and we bring in about $108,000.” He said the lack of water meters, combined with absentee landlords, high vacancy rates and some low-income users who can’t pay their bills account for some of this deficit. “Irene has also put us behind in general maintenance,” he said.
The sewer district is still waiting to get some of its Tropical Storm Irene reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That storm flooded the wastewater treatment facility, causing an estimated $800,000 in damages. Williams pointed out that the district can’t borrow money for emergencies the way that a municipality can.
“In the beginning,” Williams said, “the greater community was against us. Half the people in the district don’t even know we exist.”
Hogness, a former sewer commissioner, explained that the sewer district was formed at a time when sewage from the village center was being piped directly into the Deerfield River. She said townspeople who were not part of the sewer district did not want to share in any of the district costs. She said the attitude was: “I’m not paying for anything I don’t have to use.”
“We were in violation,” she continued. “This little village created special legislation to create the district for sewer users. Now, the river’s clean. We couldn’t have river-based business here if they were still pumping sewage into the river.”
Without a sewer district, someone said, Charlemont could have the same issues that Colrain has, in trying to revitalize its town center.
“User fees alone are not enough money to keep it really viable — especially if something like Irene comes along,” said Hogness.
Williams said the sewer district currently serves 187 homes and businesses.
One concern is how much of an increase would this small wastewater treatment facility be able to handle from new business in the future. Sewer Commissioner Beth Porter said the district might be able to handle a small laundry, but not one with 30 washers or more.
All present agreed that the town and sewer district should work more closely together to help the sewer district remain solvent. For instance, the sewer district is not notified of town building permits, which would help it gauge sewer use and possibly learn of new sewer users.
To make the town more user-friendly for future newcomers and business development, the Board of Health is looking into the possibilities of a public well, for water service, or special legislation that could make it easier to site wells within the town center. Health Board Chairman Rob Lingle said a small town in Maine was able to build such a well with the help of Department of Agriculture funding. Also, he said, a public water system would help supply water for fire hydrants.
The Planning Board has drafted zoning bylaws for a “village district zone” that would allow for denser development, apartments and commercial/residential mixed-use buildings in the town center, such as those in small Cape Cod villages.
Other ideas being explored by the Economic Roundtable participants include:
∎ Special legislation for permitting wells. Lingle explained that the village has wells that are trapped in bedrock, which makes them impermeable to contamination. He said such wells could be used even if they were closer to structures than is allowed by current state rules. For instance, Bruce Lessels of Zoar Outdoor said his company had to spend $170,000 on a new well because a bedrock well that had tested well and been used for 20 years was considered too close to the house.
∎ Broadband. Chairman Robert Hansacker of the town’s Broadband Committee reported that the regional Internet cooperative WiredWest had received a 41 percent response rate to its survey on “last mile” broadband interest from Charlemont residents. Lessels said Zoar Outdoor gets most of its business online. Many felt the lack of high-speed Internet could be a deterrent to new businesses moving to the area. Hansacker said that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, another body charged with facilitating the spread of broadband to rural areas, is now talking about “final mile” broadband in much the same way as WiredWest. And he spoke of the importance of supporting WiredWest to help see more high-speed broadband service.
MBI, with state backing, has recently completed the “middle mile” of fiber-optic cable, bringing the service to key points in towns like town halls, schools and libraries. The lines can be used by those facilities or extended to homes and businesses, but at a price.
You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 277