PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Nathaniel Karns posed a question to David Curtis: Does the county have a place for a manufacturer to construct a 150,000 to 200,000 square-foot facility?
"Yes until you impact the environmental issues that surround the parcels which make it unusable. So the answer is no," Cutis, the economic development specialist with 1Berkshire, responded.
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's executive director prefaced the question by saying most of the county's homegrown manufacturing companies expanded 10 to 15 years ago. The next step would be to double again but there is no industrially zoned and developable land available in the Berkshires.
"That's been a concern for some of us for a long time. If you cut off the ability for homegrown, successful manufacturers to expand, you are saying that's not going to happen here," Karns said.
Two years ago, BRPC undertook a survey of the available properties that are zoned for industrial usage, near main roads, and in proximity (not necessarily served by) to utilities. Only 41 of those properties have more than three acres of undeveloped, buildable land. Some 48 properties with buildings totaling 235 acres are eyed for redevelopment, and 43 properties have less than three acres of building land.
Currently there are only 10 available sites larger than 10 acres, only three exceed 30 acres, and there are no sites 50 acres or larger. For a manufacturer needing more than 200,000 feet square foot of building, the options are limited and for one needing more than 250,000 square feet, there are no options.
There is one site that is not currently available that fits the bill though: the Berkshire Mall. The mall is on "hospice care," according to BRPC's economic development planner William Compton. If the mall does become available, economic developers are seeing opportunities to fill a niche not currently available.
"The mall's existing footprint of its existing building is 650,000 square feet. If you bulldoze that you could have two, 250,000 square feet, probably three because you wouldn't need the vast amount of parking," Compton said. "There is potential."
The mall's struggles over the last two years have raised concern not only in the town of Lanesborough, where the assessed value has dropped from as high as $60.4 million to $19.5 million but the entire county because of job losses and economic impact.
The mall has lost three of its anchors with Best Buy being the first, Macy's following shortly after, and J.C. Penney announcing it will be closing in a few months. Sears is struggling and closing stores nationally, which is the final anchor left at the mall. (Target owns its space and is separate, but connected, to the mall).
Many in Lanesborough have concerns about the owner, Kohan Retail Investment Group, and are unsure of its commitment to revitalization. Owner Mehran Kohanseih, also known as Mike Kohan, has repeatedly said he plans to attract new tenants and has some in the works. But, others aren't seeing it.
"I think an accurate description of the mall right now is it is in hospice care. It is alive. The lights are on but there is really no effort," Compton said.
Other concerns are being raised about the bills being paid on time. Berkshire Mall Realty Holding, the holding company, is past due on $52,686 in taxes as of Thursday with another bill due in May. The company was taken to court by Petricca Construction over unpaid bills totaling nearly $240,000.
"On or around October 26, 2016, Berkshire Realty and PCC entered into an agreement concerning the provision of services at the Berkshire Mall. According to the agreement, Petricca Construction Company agreed to provide snow removal services as well as services incidental to snow removal, including salting, at a property operated by Berkshire Realty known as the Berkshire Mall," reads the docket filed in Berkshire Superior Court.
Petricca says Kohan failed to pay $237,491.37 for snow removal.
The Baker Hill Road District has taken steps to be able to acquire the property with a mixed-use development in mind. The group, a taxing entity responsible for the Connector Road, has asked the state for the ability to make such purchases with a hope of reaching a private-public partnership with a developer for a project. The district has been very critical of the mall owners and had made an offer to purchase it from the previous owners.
The possibility of a closure is certainly a threat to the economy. But, development specialists say it is also an opportunity.
"I would actually like to see it close and be put to additional use. You can look at somebody like Unistress, who's constantly growing and expanding and has the potential to continue that growth in the next 10 years," Curtis said.
"The city of Pittsfield is about to give up 16 acres of industrially zoned land for retail use. If you look at the number of inquiries we get right now for a larger parcel, industrial and commercial use at an affordable price, that becomes a primary target for those businesses."
Compton is a little more reserved about the possibility of Unistress. That has been a constant rumor for years and President Perri Petricca has refuted those claims publicly as recently as 17 months ago.
"If Unistress was to expand onto the mall site, unless they took over the entirety of the mall site, then I think you would be hard pressed to develop the remaining unless it was another industry similar to Unistress. The way they are located now, on opposite sides of the road, the lay of the land, the mall is sort of isolated. There is a buffer," Compton said.
Compton said there are an array of ideas for the 86 acres of land and that most reuses of such properties elsewhere have been mixed-use with housing, office, restaurants, and retail. He also sees possibilities of medical facilities. Curtis added some "innovative power generation" would be a good reuse.
"The Berkshire Mall is one of the more exciting opportunities in the county," Compton said.
The discussion was had during the meeting of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy meeting. The meeting was the first in a long time after BRPC Planner Brian Domina, who headed the project, moved on. The group, which consists of business representation for various sections, is first going to focus on filing the CEDS plan with the U.S. Economic Development Agency and then wondered if the mall was something the group could pool its efforts behind.
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