A view from the top of the Mahanna Cobble Trail in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy 1Berkshire

PERSPECTIVES: Outdoor recreation, an investment in recovery

We are at a major moment in the outdoor recreation economy of the Berkshires.

Editor’s Note:  This article was authored in collaboration with 1Berkshire’s Director of Economic Development, Ben Lamb, and Vice President of Tourism and Marketing, Lindsey Schmid.

Outdoor recreation has been one of the most omnipresent yet uncredited pillars of the Berkshire economy for generations, but that has started to change. From its days as a natural sanctuary sporting clean air and water for 19th-century city dwellers, to hosting snow trains for skiers, to the present rapidly-diversifying playground for all nature-lovers, the Berkshires has an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities.

We at 1Berkshire started utilizing outdoor opportunities in our marketing efforts consistently about four years ago and now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the necessity of shining a light on this sector has been pushed to the forefront.

To ensure we capitalized on visitors’ desire to get outside this past summer and beyond, the marketing message 1Berkshire has been promoting is Let the Berkshires Be Your Backyard. This message, along with the simple desire to get out of our homes, breathe fresh air, and visit new sites close to home, has meant huge upticks in the use of outdoor space and activities. Normally quiet hiking trails have become jam-packed with visitors; lakes have seen a bustle of boats, kayaks and canoes; and cultural institutions have seen immense gravity around their vast outdoor assets.

Some young adventurers and their canine pal take a hike on the Mahanna Cobble Trail in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy 1Berkshire

Meanwhile, ski mountains have experienced hordes of snow lovers flocking to the slopes, and bike retailers have struggled to keep stock on the shelves due to demand. These visitors are staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, buying clothing and gear from local retailers, and ultimately bringing vital capital through the doors of our business community at a time when they sorely need it. Over the past 11 months, these increases in visitor numbers have not only helped with aspects of our regional economic resilience, they have also emphasized the robust and inherent nature of our outdoor recreation economy, an opportunity not to be overlooked.

Fortunately, here in the Berkshires we have innovative and forward-thinking mavericks, bound to discover untapped potential and opportunities. In the outdoor recreation cluster, those strategic risk-takers have helped map a course to expand and strengthen the sector so we all might benefit from its growth. But, as with any type of economic growth, investment is required. This investment needs to coalesce the dollars, energy, time, and community buy-in from these numerous endeavors. The investments equal millions of dollars, an immense amount of heart, and thousands of hours, and are ultimately making the Berkshires a four-season destination for people to take advantage of the wonders of the outdoors.

In the southernmost portion of the region, Catamount is a prime example of a large investment bringing a historic property into a new era. With over $8 million invested — between a beautiful new lodge and the longest contiguous zipline in North America — they have built a cornerstone of multi-season recreation. For generations, the facilities at Catamount have been a place for summer camps and winter skiing, but with this injection of capital and new layers of organizational leadership, the next era of outdoor activity is bound to be an economic driver for the surrounding communities.

Similarly, in the heart of Pittsfield, vital investments by Mill Town Capital have begun to revitalize the oldest ski mountain in the Berkshires at Bousquet. These investments are going further than just the ski mountain, as the development of neighboring properties turns the area into a potential outdoor recreation destination for residents and visitors alike. Not only will these new (and renewed) property developments create growth through the visitor economy, they will continue to improve opportunities for a robust quality of life here in the Berkshires.

Looking uphill on a newly groomed run at Bousquet in Pittsfield. Photo: Ogden Gigli

Further north, in the City of North Adams, Tourists has been making a name for itself for several years. Many know them for their world-class accommodations complex, but at the core of their campus is the convergence of the Appalachian Trail, Hoosic River, railroad, and Mohawk Trail. Tourists has embraced these historic outdoor assets to create an array of opportunities, sprinkled with outdoor art installations and numerous activity spaces. Their work is ongoing, with exciting plans for the Adventure Trail, an outdoor corridor that will thread together all of the historic paths of travel and activity on the westernmost end of the City. With the support of the Commonwealth, a true public-private partnership on the horizon could lead to the creation of a corridor that has been discussed and desired for over 100 years.

Looking north across the Hoosic River on the footbridge leading to a network of trails at TOURISTS in North Adams. Photo courtesy 1Berkshire

Even beyond the private sector, public outdoor recreation development around the Berkshires has been continuing to gain traction and support. In Lenox, Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary is investing more than $1 million into their facilities and trails, improving access and engagement for individuals of all ages. Similarly, Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) has long been working on the vision and implementation of their High Road project. This network of trails and paths throughout the Berkshires will eventually create contiguous ways to navigate the county and enjoy the bounty of outdoor assets and fantastic downtowns.

The welcome and visitor center spaces at the entrance of Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox. Photo: Marianne Hall

On top of that, BNRC has received a groundswell of additional donor support, allowing them to create universal accessibility trails, such as the Thomas and Palmer Brook reserve in Great Barrington, and additional accessible trails such as the Old Mill Trail in Dalton and Parson’s Marsh in Lenox. Improving accessibility to the outdoors represents the embracing of inclusion and equity, opening the door to the joys of the Berkshires to audiences previously excluded.

With all of the momentum and growth across the region, there are still projects that need attention and investment to turn opportunity into outcomes. The Greylock Glen is a prime example. Nestled at the base of Mount Greylock, this 1,000+ acre public space has been host to thousands of visitors in recent history. With well-groomed trails, breathtaking views, and opportunities during all four seasons, the Glen is on the cusp of becoming a gem of an outdoor destination. Iterations of plans and efforts over the past 40 years have yet to yield the critical private partner to join the public support for this bountiful asset. The clay is there to be molded, and in the increasingly-prominent outdoor recreation economy, time is of the essence to grab ahold of the emergent market shares.

We are at a major moment in the outdoor recreation economy of the Berkshires. Between the significant investment in recent years, the incredible plans in the works, and the robust new markets yet to be fully tapped, our outdoor recreation assets are maturing into the full-force economic driver we deserve. With the necessary public and private partnerships, application of capital investment, focused attention, and a touch of that Berkshire magic, a trail of economic vitality and resilience can be built by a new era of hikers, bikers, skiers, and adventure seekers ready to explore the Berkshires.