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Restoration of dormant school seen as critical to Housatonic village revival

The primary order of business for Conner and Nappo was to get the selectboard to write a letter of endorsement for Grayhouse's application for $75,000 on an emergency basis from the Massachusetts Historical Commission's Preservation Projects Fund.

Great Barrington — The quest for funding and tenants continues as Grayhouse Partners seeks to redevelop the former Housatonic School. And if it succeeds, the project could prove to be a key factor in the revival of Housatonic village. But there is much work to do.

Members of the Grayhouse Partners team, financial consultant Gillette Conner and principal Bill Nappo, explain their proposal for the reuse of Housatonic School at a June 2018 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectmen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In the summer of 2017, Grayhouse put forward a proposal, and signed a memorandum of understanding with the town, for a “public-private partnership” for the building. The plan, the only one the town has so far received in three rounds of requests for proposals, calls for an adaptive reuse of the vacant 110-year-old school on Pleasant Street near the center of the historic Housatonic section of Great Barrington.

Grayhouse CEO Bill Nappo and his business consultant Gillette Conner told the selectboard at its Nov. 28 meeting that they have been meeting regularly with town manager Jennifer Tabakin and town planner Chris Rembold, and Nappo has been networking and attending various economic development conferences.

“We’ve also been doing quite a lot of work in identifying tenants,” Conner said.

See video below of Bill Nappo and Gillette Conner of Grayhouse Partners asking the selectboard to endorse an emergency state grant application on Nov. 28, 2018:

The primary order of business for Conner and Nappo was to get the selectboard to write a letter of endorsement for Grayhouse’s application for $75,000 on an emergency basis from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Preservation Projects Fund. Those funds, issued through the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, would be used to repair the roof of the building.

The application for the funds can be made as soon as possible. According to Galvin, emergency funds are available at his “discretion for stabilization of resources considered in imminent danger.” There are no deadlines for the submission of emergency fund requests. The board unanimously approved the drafting of an endorsement letter.

The playground area of the Housatonic School, looking east toward the Monument Mills and Flag Rock. Photo: David Scribner

In partnership with the town, which owns the building, Grayhouse is also applying for a grant of $650,000 from the town’s Community Preservation Fund, according to Tom Blauvelt, who chairs the Great Barrington Community Preservation Committee. The Grayhouse Community Preservation Act application can be viewed by clicking here.

The request is a whopper, perhaps the largest the committee has received since its formation five years ago when the town adopted the CPA. Blauvelt said Grayhouse’s proposal made it past the first round of the committee’s vetting process last month and is expected to receive further scrutiny at the panel’s next meeting Monday, Dec. 17.

Blauvelt is doubtful Grayhouse will receive the full amount. His committee has $1.1 million available this year but requests total $1.78 million. And the fact that Grayhouse is not putting significant funds of its own into the project is a concern for some committee members, Blauvelt said.

Among the tenants who have expressed interest were Laurie Lane-Zucker and his organization Impact Entrepreneur Center based in Sheffield. Also interested is Community Health Programs, Nappo said.

Lane-Zucker, who started the innovative business incubator in 2011, was profiled in Forbes magazine and had publicly identified the Housatonic School as a potential site.

Impact Entrepreneur CEO Laurie Lane-Zucker in front of the Housatonic School. Photo: Kathy Orlando

“Impact Entrepreneur applauds the efforts of Bill Nappo and Grayhouse to bring the Housatonic School building back to life, and we remain interested in the possibility of locating our center in Housatonic, especially if the Housatonic School renovation is part of a broader redevelopment master plan that includes the Monument Mills property and other vacant and/or underused properties,” Lane-Zucker told The Edge.

Zucker said he sees an opportunity for the village of Housatonic to “reinvent itself as an Innovation Village with a sustainability theme.” Seeing that vision come to fruition, however, will require much collaboration among the town, property owners in the village, and elected officials on the state and local levels, Lane-Zucker explained.

“We are delighted to support and participate in any serious movement in that direction,” Lane-Zucker added.

“He has a fairly large network … we’ve had some fairly definitive and meaningful conversations with him,” Conner said of Lane-Zucker. “[The center] would be something that would encourage entrepreneurship in our area. It would also be very much in line with the principles of why people live in this area.”

CHP is a popular nonprofit regional health care provider with offices in several locations in Berkshire County, including Great Barrington. CHP spokesperson Ellen Lahr said the organization is interested but has not committed to anything yet.

Ellen Lahr

“CHP wrote an early letter of support for the Housatonic School project and has expressed interest in possibly having some of its family services programs available in the building, if the project comes to fruition,” Lahr told The Edge. “There is no formal arrangement, nor is CHP is involved in any way as a development partner.”

Shuttered by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District 15 years ago, the Housatonic School has a long and checkered history. The former community elementary school opened in 1909 and has remained mostly empty since 2003 when Berkshire Hills consolidated its schools with a new regional elementary- and middle-school campus on Monument Valley Road.

While town officials clearly would have preferred to sell the building, there have been no serious offers. Officials have warmed to the idea of a public-private partnership because, even if it means the town still owns the building, at least the town would retain some control over its future, unlike the old Castle Street firehouse, for example, which continues to languish after being purchased in 2014 by a retired upstate New York banker who had grand plans that have so far not panned out.

As presented, the project would convert the school into seven small apartments and several offices and work spaces on three levels. Nappo and Conner have not yet said how much it will cost to complete the project but structural engineer James Clark, who ran unsuccessfully this spring for selectman, conducted a study six years ago.

At that time, Clark estimated the total cost of a renovation would be almost $1.9 million, which includes the removal of asbestos and lead, and the construction of an elevator needed to bring the building into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But there is hope that a renovated Housatonic School would have positive ramifications for the village, which has lots of potential but has been dealt many setbacks over the years since the Monument Mills closed.

“One of the earlier directions from the selectboard a while back was to look at how the Housatonic School can be an anchor to help nurture and grow entrepreneurial businesses not just in the school, but to populate the mills and to use the vacant space around there,” said town manager Jennifer Tabakin, herself a Housatonic resident.

The former Housie Market and Cafe.

Indeed, there has been some progress in reviving Housatonic village, but nearly as many setbacks. Earlier this year, the Park Street bridge, which was undergoing a $3.4 million reconstruction, reopened to two-way traffic after being restricted to one lane for months and closed completely for several days because of a partial collapse last year. The complete reopening was good news to businesses whose activities had been disrupted by the construction.

The two remaining restaurants, the Brick House Pub and Pleasant & Main, appear to be thriving. But the Housie Market and Cafe closed last year and remains vacant. Housatonic resident Patrick Hollenbeck bought the space at a foreclosure auction over the summer and has been searching for a tenant for the downstairs retail space.

Patrick Hollenbeck at a Great Barrington Libraries Board of Trustees meeting earlier in 2018. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In an interview, Hollenbeck said he has spoken with several people about using the space. Some are interested in opening a business along the lines of the old Housie Market. Others are eyeing an art gallery.

“People are actively looking at it,” Hollenbeck said. “But it needs to be sustainable and it needs to be something that will work for them and the community, especially in the winter time.”

One potential tenant Hollenbeck interviewed had an interesting idea: “Some young folks wanted to open a laundromat and wine bar at night. Then they thought about it and realized there was not a lot of demand to wash your clothes in brown water.”

A bathtub of a Housatonic Water Works customer filled with water after recent water main flushings. Photo: Mellonie Noble

It was a reference to the problems that have plagued Housatonic Water Works, the private water company serving more than 700 customers in the village, that has been the subject of persistent complaints from customers about rust-colored water and has been ordered by state environmental officials to fix its chlorination system.

Both Hollenbeck and Tabakin see possible synergies in Grayhouse’s plans with the recently established Studio For Integrated Craft. Asher and Jamie Israelow recently founded the studio, which will provide space for professional working artists, in the 25,000-square-foot former Country Curtains factory on the Housatonic River at 430 Park St..

Last month, the studio received a grant of almost $150,000 from MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development and finance agency. The grant will cover architectural, structural and engineering services, along with demolition, machinery removal and roof work. The Israelows also own a contemporary custom furniture design business.

“Everybody is excited about the future and there is a lot of room for collaboration,” Jamie Israelow said in an Edge interview. “We’ve met with Bill and are very excited about what he is doing. There’s lots of synergy here … when one of us does well, we all do well.”

Israelow says she has several potential tenants in the pipeline and has started construction on portions of the building, as well as clearing out old equipment left behind by Country Curtains.

As for the health of village itself, Israelow characterized it as “vibrant.” But as the working mother of an infant and toddler, Israelow can think of a couple of things that the village needs.

“We need fiber optics and child care that’s local,” she said.

Asher and Jamie Israelow on the fourth floor of the Studio for Integrated Craft at 430 Park St. in Housatonic. Photo courtesy Studio for Integrated Craft

There are no child care centers in Housatonic, though there are several in Great Barrington and other nearby towns. The lack of high-speed broadband internet service has been a longstanding concern. The only high-speed option currently is from Charter-Spectrum, but its speeds are widely deemed unsuitable for businesses that need bandwidth for video conferencing or moving video files.

The Studio for Integrated Craft is just around the corner from the Monument Mills complex. That sprawling property, which is now mostly unused, was the center of a redevelopment plan in 2011 put forward by Florida developer Stephen Muss.

Muss essentially proposed a riverfront village center that would have included a new firehouse, an amphitheater along the Housatonic River, a riverwalk, two new pedestrian bridges between the village and the mills, a specialty marketplace, a culinary school, a coffee shop, a gym, office space, an inn, residential housing, art galleries including a satellite facility of the Mass MoCA, and a parking facility and roundabout.

Developer Stephen Muss, in front of Whitmore ‘Nick’ Kelley’s mill in Housatonic, in 2011. Photo: David Scribner

But Whitmore “Nick” Kelley, who has owned Monument Mills since the 1980s, insisted he had his own plans to redevelop the mill. Negotiations subsequently collapsed.

In April, Brandee Nelson, who chairs the Great Barrington Planning Board, said she would like to see some of the mills in Housatonic reused as marijuana cultivation facilities. The redevelopment of the mills in the village was a priority in the town’s award-winning master plan of 2013.

That’s one of the reasons Hollenbeck bought the Housie Market and Cafe: He was concerned that it might be acquired by a recreational cannabis retailer.

“I wish we saw more proactive movement from the town for this,” said Hollenbeck, referring to the economic development of the village. “I think the town needs to get the word out about Housatonic in a big way. There’s something romantic about a water tower and mills. It’s like it’s from the 1800s.”


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