Pittsfield — In a lounge next to the lobby in Pittsfield’s new $14 million Hotel on North, the floor-to-ceiling windows are without the curtains that had been ordered, and will likely remain that way.
“We want [the hotel] to feel connected to the city, to the diverse fabric of Pittsfield that makes you realize where you are — we don’t want to cut it off,” said Main Street Hospitality Group CEO Sarah Eustis.
“We’re transparent, you can come in, you can look in,” she added, pleased with the about-face on the new curtains, though she said they might go up in winter “to make it cozy.”
Main Street manages the hotel for owners David and Laurie Tierney, and now owns and/or manages four hotels in the Berkshires, the Williams Inn in Williamstown, The Porches Inn at MassMOCA in North Adams, and The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge. The company is a “minor investor” in Hotel on North, Eustis said.
Hotel on North is a design hotel-enthusiasts dream, with its simply-styled rooms, warm wood and brick, art collections like a series from Pittsfield-based photographer Eric Korenman, and Eat and Drink on North, a straightforward farm-to-table enterprise with wood tables crafted by the restaurant’s local celebrity-chef, Brian Alberg. By next week, a gift shop will open on the ground floor; Dory & Ginger is co-owned by owner Laurie Tierney and Cara Carroll, and the shop, Tierney says, is not attempting to compete with other North Street shops, “but just enhance and complement what’s already here.”
While Main Street’s other hotels have a clear and predictable guest base, Hotel on North does not appear to fall into any obvious guest category. But Eustis says that there is a method behind what may seem like a gamble.
“We are literally in the heart of the Berkshires,” she said. “Halfway between Great Barrington and Williamstown — a hub.”
“A hub and spokes for leisure or business,” Eustis explained, particularly for those work in Troy, Albany, and Northampton, for example. She says that’s just “anecdotal,” and that the company’s research has determined that Hotel on North has something to add to the city and region. Main Street’s COO Bruce Finn, a Pittsfield native, studied the research, she said, and “got a sense of how many room nights are requested [in Pittsfield].”
Those requests are coming from people who attend conferences and do mid-week business at a host of large companies including General Dynamics, Pine Cone Hill, Interprint, Berkshire Medical Center, the municipality, and other mid-size companies, associations and non-profits. This was Finn’s rationale, Eustis added, for “doing a great hotel in Pittsfield.”
Between Finn’s rationale, and the “instincts” of Main Street Founder and Chairman Nancy Fitzpatrick, whose family has owned The Red Lion Inn since 1968, the “idea that’s been brewing…for a long time” both for Finn and Fitzpatrick, has come to pass. Eustis said that Fitzpatrick has for years been looking for the right building in Pittsfield. At the hotel’s opening party on June 4, Fitzpatrick said that the hotel is “going to deliver one of the best hotel experiences in New England — dead center in Pittsfield.”
The Tierney’s had two buildings side by side, and David Tierney’s construction company has worked with Fitzpatrick before on two projects, including refurbishing work and construction at The Red Lion Inn, said Laurie Tierney. Both Tierneys are Berkshire County natives; David was born and raised in Pittsfield.
Laurie Tierney, a part-time realtor at Kinderhook Group, said that she and her husband are passionate about the hotel. “This is our legacy, one of those projects that was taken very personally. It’s our baby. And it’s become a family project.”
All three of the couple’s children have worked for the family business, Tierney said, and their 21-year-old daughter will work this summer as bartender at Eat and Drink on North. David Tierney’s sister, Karen Hunt, was the project architect.
“It’s the luck of the Irish,” Eustis said of the partnership between the Fitzpatricks and Tierneys. It was the Tierneys who “had a vision for a hotel,” she added. “And we were very involved in every aspect of the development.”
Eyebrows are up and breaths held, with hopes that the hotel signals a turnaround for Pittsfield, a city that fell into hard times when the General Electric Company began pulling out before it completely left in 1989, removing thousands of jobs and leaving behind an environmental and economic mess, since it was no longer there to fuel the tax coffers in a city with a higher tax rate for businesses. Government subsidized “Section 8” housing soon proliferated, property values plummeted, crime went up, and businesses have had a hard time staying afloat. Downtown also had to compete with the Berkshire Mall, which opened in Lanesboro at around the same time that GE left.
“Mid-week is where we’re going to make this work,” Eustis explained. “Weekends will be great, and we will love that; more leisure travelers, design hotel enthusiasts, art lovers…”
Eustis says that until now, the Crowne Plaza Hotel was the only option for a full-service hotel in downtown Pittsfield. “It’s a very serviceable hotel,” Eustis said, but “people’s expectations are increasing for design and hospitality.” Eustis said it was difficult to explain why “standards are going up” in this way.
A search on booking.com for a non-smoking double room at the Crowne Plaza on June 10 yielded a room for only $17 less than Hotel on North’s rate for the same night. “We analyzed the pricing structure,” Eustis said. “It’s reflective of the region, the seasonality, and we’re paying attention to it as we go forward. It’s a very fluid thing.”
Another reason why Eustis thinks it will work is that “a hotel is different from retail and offices. We’re open all the time, a living breathing heartbeat that we’re hoping will keep the blood pumping.”
Eustis sees the hotel as joining a heart rhythm that already exists as long-standing North Street stalwarts like Paul Rich & Sons and Steven Valenti continue to serve the area. She said that relatively recent additions like the The Beacon Cinema, Dottie’s Coffee Lounge, Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theatre Group, Marketplace Cafe, Mission Bar + Tapas and the more recently opened Methuselah Bar and Lounge, to name a handful, are growing the charm in that area.
“We’re trying to join our neighbors and add critical mass so they can realize their investments,” Eustis said, and to help Pittsfield “be a more attractive place to set up shop and feed the community.”
“We’re taking a calculated risk,” she added. “It takes time to get to what we call stabilization. And we believe that we have a conservative plan…goals that are realistic. We have a responsibility to our owners and MountainOne [Bank] to deliver.”
Delivering is something Main Street Hospitality does well. Eustis credits Main Street’s philosophy and strategy of “focusing on employees first, making sure they are healthy and happy and feel they have a great place to work.” Next come guests, who “are a priority,” but “if employees aren’t happy, they can’t give good service.”
The company believes in “taking care of the community and the surroundings…by being engaged and aware and partnering to best of our ability with neighbors,” and “treating our suppliers like guests.”
“Owners come last,” she said. But the owners ultimately benefit. “Our businesses have thrived using this philosophy.”
But the hospitality business requires a steady stream of guests, and Main Street plans to use a number of different tools to increase occupancy, Eustis said. “We’re going to manage our rates very carefully. It’s a fine art.” Main Street will wage an aggressive PR campaign “that goes way beyond the Berkshires,” but also aims to be part of the larger “Berkshire branding strategy.”
The Berkshires’ food culture, which centers around locally sourced, simple food, pulls both visitors and locals into its vortex. At Eat and Drink on North, one can eat in the manner of one’s grandparents, if they lived on a farm in the Deep South. “Cast-Iron Mac & Cheese, with or without pig,” and “Chicken and Waffles” are on the menu, along with more sophisticated fare like oysters from the restaurant’s raw bar, or Boquerones, a white anchovy. All of it can be eaten while looking out at the antics on the street, or into the dark, beckoning bar and lounge area.
“This was my playground,” said Executive Chef Alberg, who is also Main Street’s VP of Food and Beverage Operations. Alberg is overseeing the restaurant with Chef de Cuisine Sean Corcoran. “This is where I got to do my concept and food philosophy,” Alberg said, standing in his food domain on one end of the U-shaped bar.
The Columbia County (N.Y.) native says he wants to cook and serve what he and his chef friends eat when they go out here or in New York City, which usually starts with oysters somewhere, and moves on to chicken and waffles at Blue Ribbon in the wee hours. He says it’s about real food like “comfort food from the South and Mediterranean foods.” Alberg is using mostly local vendors, including local coffee roasters.
But it’s only partly about food. Alberg believes in “moving the cooks into the dining room.” And so he did, at one end of the bar, where he works and serves with knives and other equipment on view. “We’re not hiding things. And we’re doing things like salting dishes with our fingers. It’s like having people in my kitchen.”
Alberg also got to build the restaurant’s tables out of a stack of aged oak and ash from David Tierney.
Alberg says the restaurant is not there to compete with surrounding businesses. He says it is the “perfect compliment to the hard work already done here with Methuselah, Dottie’s and Mission,” which are just north of the hotel. “They are anchors. We’re going to help bring more business to all of us.”
The hotel and restaurant are also adding jobs. Main Street’s COO Bruce Finn said that “fifty people have been hired so far, and we’ll have 75 for peak season.” He said many the new employees live downtown and can walk to work.
The presence of a police officer, stationed outside the hotel during the later hours of the hotel’s opening party, raised the question of whether North Street might come to resemble Hudson, New York. Anyone who has been to Hudson knows the drill: a swanky, hip thoroughfare that is inaccessible to most of the city’s residents, many of whom live in poverty and endure high rates of crime. Eustis says that the hotel is working to make “all people feel at home” while “applying security measures to make sure guests are safe.”
“We will provide everyone with same level of hospitality,” she said. “But we’re not going to put up with any shenanigans.”
Indeed, the hotel’s revolving door, like the naked windows, bestows a welcoming energy. At around noon on a recent weekday, a passerby pushed through it just to eyeball the place, and was greeted warmly by Eustis and other staff. The door was the brainchild of the Tierneys, who before they went to a Pink concert in Nashville, had had burgers in a restaurant with a door just like that installed at the hotel.
Hotel on North, it appears, has shaken hands with these hard city streets.