LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Sixth-graders Tyler Hynes-Drumm and Riley Babcock understand the impact the struggling Berkshire Mall has on the town.
"This issue is important because," Riley told the Board of Selectmen on Monday and Tyler finished the sentence, "our town income is lower because the mall had just a big impact on our community."
"When it is gone, we have to pay higher taxes and tourist may stop visiting," Riley said.
The pair had sat down with Assessor Kelly Tolisano, who explained to them that the mall is valued at $19.5 million, resulting in a tax bill of $417,000 — a number that is significantly down from the mall's heyday and one that the current owner routinely falls behind on and then catches up at the last moment.
But they also know that a number of local children are taking trips to the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction, Vt. And they believe that is one of three great ways to reuse the Berkshire Mall.
"Kids from Berkshire County are already going there," Tyler said, adding that the center supports hotels, restaurants, brings in tourist, and there had been a national champion qualifier there providing a positive role model.
The pair also did a careful analysis of a potential trampoline park, citing that as the top option for reuse.
"This is a safe place for kids to hang out and for parents to frequently join in the fun. We already have a bouncy house for the young kids and it has not gone out of business," Tyler said.
Riley said there is a lack of entertainment space and showed a video of the two interviewing a local musician who said there was a lack of places to play. Tyler added that it would be a place to bring artists from New York City and Boston who don't tend to stop here now.
"Entertainment and new shopping opportunities will help revive the mall," Riley told the Selectmen.
Classmate Karlie Dowling said those types of reuse for the mall would go along way to helping the mall. And, the proposals weren't just pulled out of the blue. The sixth-graders based their research on the request of the townspeople.
"The more people there means there will be more jobs. Our first step was to ask our town residents what they want to see so we could come up with a plan," Karlie said. "To solve to this problem, our proposal was to add a trampoline park. But then we also thought that adding an entertainment venue would bring families together."
Emily Mole said the class started with placing surveys at the post office and at the school that listed possible uses from senior housing, to an arcade, to more shopping, to storage, to a youth center and more. They asked residents to check off their top three. Recreation turned out to be the top vote-getter, an arcade such as a Dave and Busters came in second, and shopping came in third.
"People do miss shopping in our mall. Some people do want to go shopping instead of online all of the time," Emily said.
Digging deeper, the poll asked residents to rank their top recreational choice. That included the trampoline park, bowling, paintball, go-carts, a turf field, rock climbing, and more.
"The top one we had was a trampoline park and then we had go-carts and then roller skating. If we were to put recreational activities in the mall, we would put these three choices of recreational activity," Emily said.
The report provided on Monday was part of a school program to understand local government and the impacts of the mall. The pupils used technology to create slideshows and videos for the presentation.
"We started this project about a month ago. I wanted the students to think about how the mall impacts their community and how our town government works. I feel it is so important for our young people to be invested in their community because they are our future," teacher Julieann Haskins said.
"We looked at other dying malls across the country and how they are being repurposed and then students created action plans for our mall."
Haskins said all sixth-graders at the school played a role in developing the action plans. The Board of Selectmen was impressed. Board members asked if the town could post the presentations on its website and said they'd like to share it with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, which is working on a similar project.
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