Is there still a redeveloped mill complex in Housatonic’s future?

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By Saturday, Dec 24 News  18 Comments
Heather Bellow
Nick Kelley's idle Monument Mills building along Route 183 in Housatonic, Mass., that held the key to the redevelopment of a complex of historic manufacturing buildings along the Housatonic River.

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.

Developer Stephen Muss, in front of Kelley's mill in Housatonic, in 2011.

Developer Stephen Muss, in front of Kelley’s mill in Housatonic, in 2011.

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.

Conceptual plans for Stephen Muss's 'Housatonic River Walk' redevelopment of mills and adjacent sites in Housatonic.

Conceptual plans for Stephen Muss’s ‘Housatonic River Walk’ redevelopment of mills and adjacent sites in Housatonic.

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.

Mill buildings flank the river and the remains of a bridge abutment is a testament to a time when there was thriving commerce along the river. Photo: Heather Bellow

Mill buildings flank the river and the remains of a bridge abutment are testaments to a time when there was thriving commerce along the river. Photo: Heather Bellow

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.

Nick Kelley, foreground, at Selectboard hearing. Standing behind him is his attorney, Edward McCormick.

Nick Kelley, foreground, at Selectboard hearing. Standing behind him is Stephen Muss’ attorney, Edward McCormick.

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.”

Nick Kelley's alternative concept for the redevelopment of his mill property, prepared as an antidote to the Muss proposal.

Nick Kelley’s alternative concept for the redevelopment of his mill property, prepared as an antidote to the Muss proposal.

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.

The dormant Housatonic Elementary School was to have been a component of Stephen Muss's redevelopment concept. Photo: Heather Bellow

The dormant Housatonic Elementary School was to have been a component of Stephen Muss’s redevelopment concept. Photo: Heather Bellow

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.”

The town's grant funded infrastructure work to a large storm water main continues at the site of Nick Kelley's Monument Mills complex. Photo: Heather Bellow

The town’s grant funded infrastructure work to a large storm water main continues at the site of Nick Kelley’s Monument Mills complex. Photo: Heather Bellow

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.’ ”


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18 Comments   Add Comment

  1. JayJay says:

    I am a fairly new resident of Housie and so this article was very enlightening to me. I agree that it is a terrible waste to let those great mills lie fallow all these years when they have so much potential to revitalize the town. As a newcomer, I can only think part of Mr. Muss’s problems is that he was not ” from here” .

    1. Carol Diehl says:

      Yes, it’s true. A billionaire from Florida, Muss did not seem to understand the character of the village or even notice that it had one. Through his gilded eyes, Housatonic’s lack of pretension was something to look down on– he was going to be its savior. His proposal did result, however, in zoning changes that could possibly encourage more commercial development, and Sondra’s restoration of an iconic mill building was another boon. What hurt Housatonic most was the closing of its school, once the heartbeat of the village. The development of the school and the Cook’s Garage site should be priorities and, this cannot be said too many times, their viability would be enhanced by high-speed Internet.

      1. Jim Johnston says:

        The only character Housatonic has is ‘dumpy’. This is why this town is failing rapidly. We’re so worried about maintaining “small town feels” and “character’ that we’ve driven away business and residents. Aging/shirking populations don’t lower taxes, growth does. Get over it.

  2. Michelle Loubert says:

    Redevelopment of the mills? Yet, it took 2 months for the town of Great Barrington to replace a tarp over the roof of the entrance of the deteriorating Housatonic School–which the town is trying to sell. If our town leaders can’t manage a tarp for a town building, I don’t have much confidence in their grand efforts for the redeveloment of a mill that is privately owned.

  3. Carol Diehl says:

    Quite a few of us here in Housatonic were against the Muss proposal, as we did not want to see our beloved village turned into a touristic Disneyland. We want to encourage development, but that which keeps our sense of community intact and fits with the history. If the area is to thrive, it needs to diversify its sources of tax revenue and employment opportunity–reduce its dependence on tourism and real estate and encourage businesses to locate here that will attract full-time residents, young families that will become engaged in the community and bring energy to it. At the time I recommended to the Select Board (and I understand the Finance Committee did as well) that GB hire an economic development officer to connect potential businesses with available commercial real estate. I knew of a small town near Portland, Maine that used the Portland model to develop their town with success, and suggested we invite them to speak to us. All of this fell on deaf ears, but there is no reason why we can’t do it now. Of course any industry, especially creative industry, depends on high-speed Internet, which should be our first priority. Instead of letting others impose their visions on us, let’s get together and figure out what kind of community we want to be and then work toward those goals.

    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Great comment, Carol.

    2. Bobby Houston says:

      The trait that emerges in both the story and comments is rigidity: Kelley is in a permanent blocking position; Diehl doesn’t want her village transformed; Town won’t hire or vision Economic Development personnel; and Muss wanted all or nothing. Let’s write Kelley’s holdings off; he is a sphinx and clearly not community-minded. But the rest of us — let’s get off our high horses and be more flexible. Housatonic is great– and could be quite a bit greater.

      1. Tim Newman says:

        Bobby, you’re absolutely right. Flexibility is key. Housie is a wonderful little village now, but change (and growth) won’t ruin it. Far from it. (Disneyland? Come on, Carol.) To be sure, doing someting with the school would be great; it’s a wonderful building, a village focal point and maybe it’s redevelopment woud kick start larger projects. Still, I don’t see how the potential of the village can be realized without some meaningful repurposing of the mills. They are just too physically dominant to leave out. The important thing is to make a start, and that will require a fresh coming together of the stakeholders to commit to a new (and maybe even unified) effort. All this hopefulness/wishful thinging aside, fiber broadband passing every building is absolutely essential for the future of the village. Without it, constructive development in any significant form just can’t happen.

      2. Carol Diehl says:

        Gee, I thought my “Disneyland” reference was pretty apt, as it referred to one man’s vision and aesthetic imposed on an entire village. Further, its river walks, shops and restaurants, if successful, would have drawn away from GB’s already struggling Main Street. The discussed Mass MoCA branch could have gone into the Searles School property, further enlivening downtown. If there is money to be had, it should go into making GB even more viable, sprucing up the forgotten strips of North and South Main Street, for instance. What I do not understand is the resistance to diversifying our economic and social base, which only seems like common sense to me. With its cultural attractions, good education system, and situation between NYC and Boston, it would seem a likely place for creative industry, with Housatonic a great place to start.

  4. GMHeller says:

    Too bad that GB does not have a Donald Trump-like entrepreneur who not only has vision, but who can actually get things done.

    1. james m says:

      GM Heller ,Just a plain smug and ignorant comment that contributes zero.

      1. GMHeller says:

        Just stating a fact, James M, unless you believe it’s somehow easier to build in Manhattan than in Great Barrington.
        There are Kelley’s and Muss’s aplenty in NYC, but Trump gets projects built — most on-time and under-budget.

      2. Jim Johnston says:

        I’m actually convinced at this point that it probably is easier to to build in Manhattan. Look at what the the Town did to Mr. Mahida at the Searl’s school… Mark my words, you will never see that project launch now. GB; its entitled residents and incompetent leaders are steadily running this town into the ground. It wont be long before we have no town left to worry about.

    2. Ted B. says:

      Just another venue for the Donald to rip-off by suing contractors !

  5. Joyce Scheffey says:

    Another extraordinary and heroic article, by Heather Bellow. The players leap to life. I hope there is hope for Housie and hope Heather continues the saga. That’s three hopes. Hope seems to be all that’s left in these stupefying days.

  6. Jeff Caminiti says:

    Back in 2008 I partnered with a Housie resident and a GB builder, we purchased a rundown building on Kirk Street, although the partnership was bumpy, me being a newcomer to GB, with bright eyes and dreams of purchasing other rundown properties in Housie we did manage to make our 3 family building successfully help the community . Point is, Housie needs risk takers, whether big or small. No need to challenge each other’s ideas, much more can be accomplished by blending ideas. As usually the case, small steps lead to big change. Fear holds back dreamers. Mr. Muss had a dream, sadly, we witness yet another dreamers delight snuffed out by fear of change.

  7. Len Levine says:

    As I read the article and comments it speaks of “our little hamlet” more than once. How many little hamlets are keeping their high school and college graduates from leaving and building their lives here….. Few I think! There isn’t enough employment or enough things to keep today’s young people here.
    I see another opportunity gone that could have added interest, taxes, tourism and employment to the Berkshires.
    Ten years or so ago, the Rising Paper Mill, an historic building was sold to Neenah Paper with the purpose of shutting it done and taking a competitor out. As I recall someone from I believe Atlanta wanted to do much the same thing and build housing on the Houstonic river. Trouble was, she didn’t want to bear the responsibility of cleaning up the “pristine” river… So again, no detail and no foresight.
    So here you are still wondering why we can’t get enough taxes to fix what needs fixing and ensure our future! Sometimes bold steps need to be taken by bold people. Eminent domain, nah. Full employment nah, historic buildings restored nah, on and on. Seems we can’t get out if our way.
    A teaspoon of optimism sometimes is the antidote to a gallon of pessimism!
    Len Levine

  8. Ted B. says:

    It’s too bad Jane Iredale didn’t take a look at the Nick’s Housy Mill before she started her buyout just behind Main St. GB. …….or maybe she did and we just never heard of it, and maybe Nick just shut her down ??!!

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