Baker Hill Road District Defends Its Function, Post-Mall
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Three years after the closure of the mall that necessitated its creation, representatives of the Baker Hill Road District say the little-known quasi-public authority is still a needed entity that provides considerable revenue to the town.
Partly in response to a recent dialogue erupting in a local Facebook group, the district's board members held an informational Q&A this week with several curious residents in attendance, part of a new effort they're launching at "community engagement."
"There's a lot to the road district that I think just generally isn't known because until 2020, people just didn't care about the road district," said Mark Siegars, an attorney for the district who provided most of the information at Thursday's session. "Now that we have a new out-of-state owner and a local real estate agent representing him, we now are in public view."
The history of the Baker Hill Road District dates back to 1989, Siegars explained, and was created when the town filed a home rule petition in the Legislature. Under the legislation, the district owns and is responsible for maintaining the Route 7-8 Connector Road (formerly Berkshire Mall Road).
"The fundamental reason the Road District still exists is to take care of the road," said Siegars, who said the current structure offers far more benefit to the town than if it the connecting road were to come under the umbrella of the state Department of Transportation.
The district has the authority to tax the property owners within it, then pays the town of Lanesborough. Currently, Siegars says, that amounts to at least $400,000 in payments to Lanesborough from the district.
Another, newer aspect of the district's mission is its foray into economic development of the property. In 2018, its legislation was amended to add this function, following the mall's chaotic spiral to closure. Since that time, it has worked with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to develop a study for its reuse, and advanced a proposal to modify the zoning around the property, to be voted on at annual town meeting on June 8. The uses which would be permitted under the revised zoning include the five options deemed most viable for the vacant complex: a destination sports facility; a family entertainment resort destination; a training and technology facility; senior care and transitional living; or a green agricultural facility.
"What really motivated the district and the town to work together is that, we don't want the mall building to become another GE, where the building falls down, there's nobody there, there's crime," said Siegars. "The ultimate aim is to assist the town of Lanesborough by increasing the value of that real estate, to increase the tax base in that real estate."
Interest in staging the property for new opportunities is far from a new one for the district, Siegars said, as part of the impetus for forming it came when Pyramid Management Group approached Lanesborough in the late 1980s about rezoning for a potential hotel and convention center it sought to build.
"They saw the writing on the wall," he observed.
"The Road District has from the beginning moved forward with the idea of repurposing the property," Siegars told attendees. "Initially, we had a partner in Pyramid. Then it turned to absentee landlords."
Siegars indicated matters with the mall building's ownership have not improved since its recent sale, from Michael Kohan to Vijayakumar Vemulpalli, Durga Property Holdings LLC, in 2019.
"He doesn't care about us, he doesn't care about our town," Siegars said of a meeting with said owner the week before.
This poses a particular problem for the other major property owner on the site, Target, which owns its building as a condominium (Regal Cinemas, the only other remaining commercial entity, leases it space from the mall owner).
"Target has had to spend money to repair everything the mall owns in order to stay open," Siegars said, who said that another current goal of the district is to separate water access, and it is looking to have an engineer study the options.
Only a few members of the public attended the informational Zoom session, posing questions in addition to those sent in advance, which the presentation was aimed at addressing. Some Lanesborough residents may not have been able to view the meeting in real time, as access required a passcode not published with the meeting link on the town's website. The session was recorded to be made available for future broadcast.
Among those in attendance was Jen Weber, who questioned whether the district was up to date on its payments to the town, giving voice to rumors that have circulated indicating it was not. Siegars said all payments to Lanesborough are current, and that this can be verified at any time by the town accountant.
However, if late tax payments to the district from the mall's owner don't materialize soon, the district can't remain solvent only on what it's receiving from Target, and will need to begin dipping into its $1.2 million stabilization fund soon to make up the difference as early as this September. If that situation were to continue, the fund will be depleted by 2027.
Nancy Spencer, a resident who has been vocal in questioning the district's continued existence on social media, expressed continued concerns about a lack of information available to the public.
"What bothers me most is the lack of transparency," Spencer told them, indicating that she's had a difficult time finding items like meeting agendas and minutes.
Chairman Bill Prendergast responded that a website with minutes, agendas and other documents is forthcoming, as part of the new effort at public outreach.
"It should have been in place a long time ago," Spencer replied.
"The truth of the matter is, while things were running smooth, nobody was really interested," Prendergast answered back. "Now that we're hitting harder times, now that people are complaining a little bit, and there are people in positions regarding the mall that are able to start throwing innuendos out ... all of that has caused us to do start this process."
Tags: Berkshire Mall,