Lee — The massive redevelopment of the Eagle Mill project is about to get a little larger.
Jeffrey N. Cohen, who heads Eagle Mill Redevelopment, told The Edge he plans to enlarge the size of a planned hotel from 70 rooms to as many as 120. Original plans had called for the hotel to be located adjacent to the historic machine shop building on the north side of West Center Street with the rest of the mill complex. Since there is not enough room on the site for a hotel that large, Cohen plans to build it to the south across West Center Street.
The reason for the change in plans is that Eagle Mill Redevelopment had hired HVS, a consulting firm that recently completed a feasibility study on the proposed new hotel. HVS, originally known as Hospitality Valuation Services, concluded that the ideal size would be between 85 and 120 rooms.
Developers say that size is now common because the seasonal Berkshire County tourism economy causes it to slow considerably in the colder months and the only way to make a hotel economically viable is to build large for maximum occupancy during the summer months.
“That in itself was good news,” Cohen said of the HVS study. “Hotels don’t get developed unless they have feasibility studies done by reputable organizations that say it can work.”
In order to move the site for the future hotel across the street from the main mill complex, Cohen had to acquire several properties. Late last week he signed an agreement to purchase the last property needed to site the hotel.
“It will enable us to have control of the properties and to partner with or sell to a real estate developer,” Cohen explained. “Developing hotels is not what I do.”
Cohen said he has already told key town officials about the change and in the next few weeks, he expects to approach the board of selectmen and the planning board to decide how to handle the change in plans.
Tom Wickham, who chairs the board of selectmen, said the planning board, of which he is also a member, has already approved the Eagle Mill site plan, so the board will have to decide whether the proposed change is major enough to trigger the design and submission of a new site plan rather than a revision of the existing plan.
“I’m guessing this would be major because he’s taking the hotel from one side of the street to the other,” Wickham said in an interview.
Wickham said he actually prefers the hotel to be on the other side of the street from what was originally proposed. In the original plan, most of the parking for the hotel would have been across the street, which would have meant lots of hotel guests crossing West Center Street to walk to and from their cars.
“It’s very exciting,” Wickham added. “It’s a nice location for a hotel. It would free up land [on the north side of West Center Street] that he might want to develop. The retail and housing all stay the same.”
Asked whether the market could support another large hotel in Berkshire County (see Edge story The Berkshires ‘Hotel Wars’: How many is too many?), Cohen said Lee’s geographic location off the Mass Pike is unique and that Lee, while it does have some motels in town, has no quality hotels.
“In order to get to Lenox or Pittsfield or Great Barrington [from the Mass Pike], you need to drive through Lee,” Cohen said. “If we provide a quality hotel, my theory is that people will stop in Lee.”
Cohen said studies have shown 14,500 cars per day drive by the site. He added that the continued success of the Lee Premium Outlets stores, even during an economic downturn for brick-and-mortar retail, is encouraging.
The $60 million Eagle Mill redevelopment project on the banks of the Housatonic River has been described by state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, as “transformative.” The project will revive and expand the historic mill site in downtown Lee into a combination of office space, both market-rate and affordable rental units, the aforementioned hotel, and a “public market” with multiple restaurants and food kiosks. Click here to see a comprehensive listing of the planned uses.
In December, the project hit a bump in the road when the Massachusetts Historical Commission raised questions about “several historic homes” on West Center Street slated for demolition to allow for the project’s development.
Eagle Mill Redevelopment is seeking millions in state historic rehabilitation tax credits, but Cohen does not think the demolition of the homes will prove to be a barrier to the project. As the MHC requested, Cohen has provided historical and architectural information about the houses.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito came to Eagle Mill last October to announce that Lee had received almost $5 million from a state MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant to upgrade 9,000 linear feet of water lines and support residential and commercial development in the Eagle Mill area. That’s in the town’s northern downtown district, which most people think of as the area where Joe’s Diner is located. The grant, which was initially denied on the first and second tries, was considered critical to the success of the Eagle Mill project.
Cohen said the next step is to continue to press the state historical commission for the historic rehabilitation tax credits. He expects the commission will vote on it by the end of the month. When that comes through, Eagle Mill Redevelopment will apply for commercial financing for the housing units. Cohen is talking with NBT Bank, Lee Bank and Adams Community Bank, among others.
In May, Eagle Mill received approval from the National Park Service for millions in federal historic tax credits. Cohen said it would get the attention of the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, whose department oversees the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Redeveloping a historic mill is not easy and often proceeds slowly. Cohen said it takes nine years on average, according to John Mullin, emeritus professor of regional planning at UMass Amherst who has written and lectured extensively on the subject. Eagle Mill is now in its seventh year of planning.
In late 2017, Cohen’s company, Mill Renaissance, purchased the property from the Quinn family for $700,000. At that time, Cohen also secured the services of DEW Construction Corporation as general contractor and as a partner. Mill Renaissance is a 50% owner of Eagle Mill Redevelopment LLC, while DEW Properties LLC owns the other half.
Schweitzer Mauduit International, now doing business as SWM, was primarily a manufacturer of paper for tobacco companies when it operated in the Eagle Mill. The company closed the sprawling mill on the banks of the Housatonic in downtown Lee in 2008, resulting in the loss of 165 factory jobs. Also closed was a plant in Lenox Dale.
Wickham said his board expects to hear from Cohen soon, perhaps as early as the planning board’s Sept. 9 meeting.