PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Baker Hill Road District hopes to have Senate approval to own property, specifically the Berkshire Mall, on Thursday.
State Sen. Adam Hinds' office said it is currently prepping for the bill to go for a vote on Thursday. It had been stuck in the Senate's Rules Committee receiving a review from Senate counsel for months. The House had passed the measure last June.
"Senate counsel approved the language today after a lengthy delay," said Baker Hill Road District attorney Mark Siegars on Monday.
The bill will have to be signed by the governor, which Siegars hopes will happen quickly.
The legislation is just the first step, but a major one, toward townwide efforts to redevelop the mall. The road district is currently only in charge of maintaining the Berkshire Mall Connector Road, and receives income from taxing the Berkshire Mall, Target, and other entities on the property.
The mall has been struggling for years. Town officials are aware of the "dead malls" that have been left throughout the country and the difficulties they cause cities and towns. For Lanesborough, the Berkshire Mall is the biggest taxpayer.
"This is great news today about this legislation. It is something that has to be on our radar. We can't just sit back and watch this play out," Town Manager Paul Sieloff said on Tuesday.
The mall's struggles have been well documented. The owner, Berkshire Mall Realty Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of Kohan Retail Investment Group, has routinely fallen behind on tax, water, and utility bills. Last week, Eversource reportedly cut power to portions of the mall for a day because of unpaid bills.
The owner has been taken to court on a few occasions for not paying vendors. Just this week, Louis Puyia filed a small claims case claiming the owner hasn't paid him some $577 in wages for time worked.
"The defendants breaches its agreement to the plaintiff by failing to pay him all of his wages in 2017. The defendants violated MGL 149, s148, by its failure to pay the plaintiff his wages in the amount of $488.76 plus $5 for bank expenses for bank charges due to insufficient funds," the complaint reads.
It further continues saying, "I was also not paid holiday pay for Christmas and New Years." It is unclear what position Puyia held nor is there an explanation of the missing wages. Nonetheless, that is just the latest example of the ownership being taken to court over unpaid bills.
The town and the road district have been trying to get ahead of what could be the closure of the Berkshire Mall. But the district's hands have been tied because of the state law that created it. It was created because the town at the time didn't want to take on the costs of maintaining the access road between Routes 7 and 8 that led to the mall.
But now, the district is a taxing authority and, if push comes to shove, would be in a position to take ownership of the mall and work to find developers to reuse what could possibly be the largest available commercial and industrial site in the county.
Siegars said he's been in conversation with Target, which owns the building attached to the mall, and reported that the department store is interested in staying at the location.
The district could be gifted the mall, buy it, or take it through legal takings. Any move forward is somewhat limited because of the legal ramifications the pending legislation hopes to resolve.
The district has been able to put up $20,000, which is matched by $50,000 from the state, to study possible reuses.
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study will re-envision the 720.000 square-foot building sitting on 86.2 acres of land. Senior Planner Laura Brennan is heading that effort.
A preliminary scope of the work includes looking at senior housing, affordable housing, industrial use, urban agriculture, solar, sports facility, "reimagined retail," and a mixture of usages.
In an update to the Baker Hill Road District, Brennan outlined the talking points for each. With senior housing, the county's median age is higher than elsewhere, Berkshire seniors are "over-housed," immigration to the Berkshires has been predominately ages 70 and older, and senior housing requires less access to utilities.
For affordable housing, she cited that 39 percent of the houses in the county were constructed before 1940 and 56 percent of Berkshire renters are considered "cost burdened." Yet, affordable housing units are "often ill-received by existing municipal residents."
For manufacturing and industrial use, she cited that manufacturing could provide jobs. However, there is also "serious environmental concerns," competition in the county for that type of developer, and manufacturing "has declined significantly in the last three to four decades."
For urban agriculture, she cites that it uses both indoor and outdoor space, the demand for "local food" has grown in the last decade, indoor methods can use less water than outdoor methods. But, indoor agriculture also uses more electricity.
Solar is a possibility because all of the requirements are met by the mall site already and an array could power 2,500 homes. But the tax ramifications would have the be considered.
Sports facilities have interest from the public, can be combined with other uses, and the existing structure supports it. But a sports complex creates a small number of jobs and many of them are only part time.
The mall could be retail again but according to estimates, 25 percent of malls are expected to close by 2022. That is particularly troublesome for Lanesborough because 16.3 percent of its population is employed in retail compared to the 11.6 national average.
And, the property could always mix all of that. But, a mixed-use development tends to be more difficult, but also more advantageous for both tax revenue and jobs.
Other concepts presented have been a casino, convention center, and park space.
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