Housatonic — Year after year, decade after decade, we drive past the array of abandoned grand historic mill buildings in this little village – the remnants of a once-thriving fabric industry — and we can only wonder what ever happened to that Miami developer who, five years ago, had a big vision for the mostly dormant buildings, only to roll up his plans and high-tail it back to the tropics.
In a sort of Rashomon-light tale of two developers, only one can be reached, actually; the other is unlisted and elusive, though his side of the tale is partly told by his former spokesperson, and by the record of events.
The Miami developer, Stephen Muss, told The Edge he now lives in Western Massachusetts. His 2011 plans would have resulted in a riverfront village center that would have included a new firehouse, an amphitheatre along the Housatonic River, a river walk, two new pedestrian bridges between the village and the mills, a specialty market place, a culinary school, a coffee shop, a gym, office space, an inn, residential housing, art galleries – including a satellite facility of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) – a parking facility and roundabout.
Indeed, after a tour, Mass MoCA Executive Director Joe Thompson quipped that the redeveloped Housatonic mills could become “a gateway to North Adams – and Mass MoCA.”
Early project designs also envisioned adding trees along Front Street, a river walk, a new park and playground in front of the elementary school building, as well as plans for the reuse of the Housatonic School, that wreath of thorns around Town Hall since it was abandoned around 12 years ago.
But all of this required cooperation from the other mill buildings’ owners. And all of them did, except one, who thwarted the whole thing, Muss said.
Since the early 1980s Whitmore “Nick” Kelley has owned the largest complex, known as Monument Mills –– perhaps one of the biggest buildings in all of Great Barrington–– where he rents out some spaces to tenants, though it is unclear to whom or to how many.
With Edward McCormick, his attorney, Muss had taken his elaborate plans to the Selectboard. At least some board members lit up as they considered the restoration of a hamlet that had fallen on hard times, especially after a massive fire wiped out the Aberdale block in the 1960s. Board members were also starry-eyed at the much-needed tax revenue potential.
But at the time, Kelley said he had his own plans to redevelop his building into residences, and was not going to “cooperate” with Muss in his cluster plan, as Muss tells it. While Kelley did present plans to the Selectboard for his own complex that included rental apartments, that was the last the board saw of him.
Of his own plans, Muss says he put serious “time, energy and money” into them. He further said he simply had a fondness for Housatonic, where he saw so much potential, including the idea that the rail line that runs along the mills might eventually be restored for commuter service to New York City.
And Muss’s wife Sondra, an artist, was so fond of the hamlet she herself redeveloped one of the mill buildings, the former site of Berkshire Pulse Studios that had been owned by Dale Culleton. For Berkshire Pulse, it may have been a blessing in disguise, for now the performing arts center is installed in brilliant new spaces on the top floor of the Rubin Mill next door.
And the town even zoned the area to make it easier to redevelop the mills.
There was also discussion of designating Housatonic an economically distressed district, thereby triggering federal and state redevelopment funds, a strategy that Richard Stanley had employed in downtown Great Barrington when converting the derelict Taconic Lumber property into the Triplex Cinema and adjacent parking lots — with spectacularly successful results.
But any attempts at cooperation likely went south when McCormick, at a crucial Selectboard session, suggested using eminent domain, if necessary, to take Kelley’s mill since Muss’s larger plan required Kelley’s Monument Mills buildings which represented a substantial percentage of the entire mill complex.
This kindled a high drama, especially at Selectboard meetings, and a few lines even filmmaker Kurosawa would admire.
“I have bad dreams about it,” Muss said of the entire debacle.
Muss says that after months of Kelley refusing to meet with him, he and Kelley finally did meet several times to see if they could agree on something, but nothing came of it. And each says the other was trying to outfox him.
“He was duplicitous,” Muss said of Kelley’s hiring of a public relations manager, David Guenette, to “destroy” the possibility of their working together after “a couple of nice meetings.”
“I liked him,” Muss added, and said he had no reason to believe Kelley didn’t like him.
Muss said he was good to go and had met with “all officials including the Governor [Deval Patrick].”
“They all said, ‘Mr. Muss, most people come to us to ask for money then go away, but you are here to really do a job, and there is money here for you provided you get an agreement between all the mills, get the easements.’ I had an agreement with all the mills, but the government lost interest because I couldn’t comply with their very legitimate requests.”
“He is just a slick operator,” Guenette said of Muss, and the idea that this was a cooperative venture was “bullshit.”
“[Muss] came into town promising pennies from heaven,” Guenette added. “Muss was going to control the development, which would control the historic tax credits.”
Guenette said Kelley’s architect, Stephan Green from Clark & Green was doing the work to apply for those tax credits, a long and difficult process, he added, that can take years to rack up what is needed to go forward. Guenette said this may be the reason a redevelopment hasn’t happened yet, but he hasn’t spoken to Kelley since 2013 so isn’t sure. Green declined comment.
Guenette said that back in 2011, it was the possibility of an eminent domain seizure that rankled Kelley.
Muss said that eminent domain idea “came up” at a Selectboard meeting. “No one wanted it,” he said. “It’s a tough thing to do, but a legal thing to do when ….it benefits a municipality or town.”
It turned out Kelley was in the audience at that meeting to protect against such a decision, Muss said, but Kelley refused to identify himself there.
Guenette said some Selectboard members, as well as the town manager at the time, Kevin O’Donnell, were enchanted by Muss and his plans. “They couldn’t resist the fantasy, and the hunger for this to happen was so strong but unsupported by reality.”
“It is one of the mysteries of my life,” Muss said of the project’s failure to find lift off.
But Guenette said Kelley has done a lot of good for the mill and has put a “substantial” amount of money into it over the years. “He stabilized the buildings, added new roofs, floors,” he said. “But from the outside, drive by every day over decades and it doesn’t look like any change.”
Berkshire Property Agents co-owner Tim Lovett is one of those who is dismayed by what appears to be a lack of progress, and how such redevelopments have the potential to draw in “a new generation of millennials looking outside the big metro areas.”
Lovett said mill revelopment started in the 1970s and met with much success. “We’ve seen this work all over the world. It’s not a new concept, and this is sad given our smart, worldly population here, that it just sits there. It’s a huge loss.”
Town Planner Christopher Rembold said that while he didn’t know if Kelley still has the same plans, or where they stand in terms of a timeline, “I do know he has mixed use revitalization plans.”
Rembold pointed to the town’s grant-funded infrastructure improvements in Housatonic, like fixing stormwater drainage issues that cause all the mill basements to flood after a bad storm. The work is presently underway on Park Street at the site of Kelley’s property. “We’re addressing this in part to make redevelopment possible,” which he added is part of the town’s Master Plan.
Rembold said the town and Kelley have had a “cooperative relationship.”
Muss says while he has made some mistakes here, there was one “big” one that still troubles him. “What I should have done was tell the Selectboard to call me back in a year if nothing happens [with the mills].”
“Now it’s been 5 years,” he added. “I’m 88 and I still have a lot of energy. I have a desire to go back but I won’t. The Selectmen blew it when they let [Kelley] take over the project.”
Muss said he thought the Selectboard was “ineffective” by letting this potential deal for the mills fall apart.
Board Vice Chair Stephen Bannon did not entirely disagree. “He’s a smarter developer than I had imagined, so maybe we could have done things differently,” Bannon said.
But Bannon also said that private property owners can only be coaxed so far, and can’t be compelled to cooperate no matter how prime a location for “industry or affordable housing.”
And board Chair Sean Stanton agreed with Bannon here, and added that, like Bannon, he would absolutely meet with Muss again to try to rekindle something for Housatonic.
“Maybe in five years things have changed,” Bannon said.
Maybe –– Muss says he still regrets the plan’s demise.
“Every once in a while I go through Housie, and I think, ‘what a shame.’ ”