Kurt Gaertner of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, left, congratulates Patrick and Katie Banks of Foolhardy Hill campground.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A Charlemont campground Thursday was awarded a $25,000 grant in the Lever/Mohawk Trails Woodland Partnership Entrepreneur Challenge.
Foolhardy Hill, an off-the-grid base camp for outdoor enthusiasts started by Katie and Patrick Banks, was selected from among five finalists by a panel of three judges after making virtual pitches.
"Charlemont is the mecca for outdoor recreation," Katie Banks said in giving the team's presentation. "People come to fish and paddle its waters, hike its mountains and simply enjoy the history and natural beauty of the area. The number of people visiting Charlemont has skyrocketed the last 10 years as a result of the rapid development of tourism activities.
"During this same time period, we have witnessed over nine local restaurants and shops closing their doors. Something's not adding up. Something is missing: local accommodations."
The Banks are hoping to fill that gap by catering to campers who want to stay outdoors and take advantage of the region's kayaking, mountain biking, zip lining and fishing without enduring some of the hassles associated with camping.
"We provide the basic essentials: shelter, cooking supplies, bathroom facilities and potable water," Katie Banks said. "By providing these basics, we're reducing our customers' set-up time. They can roll out their sleeping bag and head over to the community fire and make some new friends."
Foolhardy Hill was selected from among four other tourist-based businesses plus Remote Harvest Sensors, which is marketing a way to collect data about the environmental impact of logging practices.
The other tourism businesses included Charlemont-based Berkshire Bike Tours, which offers lessons and guided mountain and road bike tours in partnership with Berkshire East ski area; the Wigwam Western Summit, which revived an abandoned gem at the eastern gateway to North Adams; and Adventure East, an outdoor and experiential travel company that aims ultimately to help make the region a destination for international tourists.
Adventure East was selected as the first runner-up in a brief awards ceremony led by Kurt Gaertner, of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in Boston, which funded the grant.
"All of you proposed interesting, creative entrepreneurial ideas -- welcome and needed ways to benefit the Mohawk Trail region," Gaertner said. "I understand all of them made really fantastic pitches as part of this effort. That makes me pleased that all are benefiting from work with Lever, and I wish all of the entrepreneurs well in their endeavors."
As with other Lever challenges, the five finalists worked with the staff of the North Adams non-profit and outside mentors to develop their business plan and prepare for Thursday's pitch competition.
Williamstown's Henry Art, who chairs the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership's Board of Directors, agreed with Gaertner that all of the five finalists could benefit the region.
"I think it shows the wonderful diversity of the use of our natural resources for a combined stewardship, sustainability and economic development all rolled into one, which is really what the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership is all about," Art said.
"My impression is that each of you will have enormously benefited from the process, and the region benefits from the attention you have given to the landscape."
The potential synergies that might be achieved among the four tourism-based businesses came up during a couple of the presentations, and Katie Banks echoed that sentiment in accepting the top prize.
"Being a part of this challenge has been incredible for us," she said. "We kept saying that we're winners all along. This is just the cherry on top for us.
"To all the other participants, we can't wait to see what you guys do, too. It's been great."
During her presentation, Banks said the pair plans to apply the grant money to installation of a solar array and construction of a bathhouse that will enable them to create new camping sites in the spring and generate more revenue.
During a Q&A period with the judges that was part of each business's presentation, the Banks were asked about local competition in the camping space.
"Currently, there are maybe, in terms of proximity, eight or nine different campgrounds, and, on top of that, have motels, hotels and things of that nature," Katie Banks said. "A lot of them … don't go after the specific targeted customer that we're after. They offer a different energy and vibe, so to speak. The best way I can describe it is: You don't put a Chuck E. Cheese and biker bar under one roof and expect everything to be kosher."
Patrick Banks has 17 years of experience in the outdoor recreation industry and 12 years experience working in customer and public service. Katie Banks has over 14 years of experience in hospitality and property management. The campground they created offers 10-by-12 cabins that sleep three to four people and, as of now, one tent site that accommodates six people.
The winning couple met in 2007 as rafting guides on the Deerfield River and have been adventuring ever since, they said.
"We are the secret sauce," Katie Banks said. "Patrick and I are both from the area.
"We know how to connect with our customer because, in many ways, we are our customer."
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Say goodbye to this burst of spring — Mother Nature prefers a little chaos in her work.
The warm temperatures of Wednesday are about to plummet as a snowstorm — yes a snowstorm — bears down on the Berkshires.
The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm watch for Pittsfield north and parts of Southern Vermont beginning Thursday evening through Friday night. Total accumulations could reach 6 inches in the higher elevations.
Accuweather is forecasting up to 10 inches with rain all day Thursday and temperatures dipping into the 40s. Thursday night will temperatures dropping into the 30s.
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