Residents placed various stickers with types of reuse on the maps where they thought would be best suited.
LEE, Mass. — BRPC had just received a grant to plan out the possibilities for four vacant former paper mills when the properties all went into a whirlwind of activity.
The Eagle Mill owner announced a massive $60 million redevelopment there followed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granting $115,000 to see if the land is contaminated.
Then Niagara Worldwide purchased the Greylock, Columbia and Niagara mills for $1.5 million.
Because of those activities, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission says its two-year visioning project has now grown in importance as it help develop the "people's plan" for the massive properties.
"We want a plan that is for the people, by the people," said Project Manager Melissa Provencher on Thursday when about two dozen residents gathered at the Greenock County Club in the first public input session for the project.
The $175,000 grant to the town of Lee has brought on the Cecil Group as consultants. The company will be performing market studies, looking at various opportunities, utility and infrastructure needs, how the mills would complement each other, environmental needs and working with the community to find out not only what is possible but what is viable.
"You aren't necessarily going to get paper mills back. But, you can get some other things at maybe a smaller scale," said Ken Buckland of the Cecil Group.
According to a real estate assessment from FXM Associates, there is a growing demand for real estate in Lee, Buckland said. In the next five to seven years, the report reads, there will be a demand for health care, arts and entertainment and food service, all of which could be done in the former mills.
While Berkshire County is losing population, Lee has seen a growth of 6 percent in the number of households in the last 10 years. That increase indicates that there are more smaller households and that the rental property demand will increase, the report reads.
Meanwhile, the state is prepared to purchase and turn the railroad tracks adjacent to the mills into a passenger rail line to New York City. A separate study by BRPC suggests that a train station be constructed somewhere in downtown Lee.
With all of that outlined ahead, this study has taken on more importance, Provencher said, because it will help get all of the parties — the federal EPA who may need some Brownsfield involvement, the town for zoning, adding utility or other infrastructure such as fire suppression, the public and the developers — on the same page.
Consultant Ken Buckland has looked at the real estate market so far and says there are plenty of options to repurpose the mills.
"Because of the sale of the Niagara, Columbia and Greylock, I think it is good timing because they are still open to suggestions," Provencher said.
While the grant tasks BRPC, the town and the consultants to come up with the community's vision for the land, the developers will certainly have a chance to participate, she said.
Having the public "buy in" will help smooth out the future development of the mills.
"Having the community buy in makes these project so much more viable," she said, particularly when it comes to securing the right funding package or getting the needed infrastructure.
Some of the ideas kicked around on Thursday included indoor recreation, housing, educational facilities, train stations or alternative energy plants. BRPC and the consultants will sort through the research and eventually determine what is viable and what isn't. In the end the group will deliver a general site plan of what the town community wants.
"It is a two-year process and we're getting close to the end of the first year," Provencher said. "There will be a lot more of a public process."
Provencher says not only will there be multiple public meetings but a webpage is going to be developed to keep townspeople up to date on the progress and let them weigh in that way. At Founder's Day, they hope to reach many people and get input there.
The plan is expected to be completed by September 2015.
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