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A rendering of the original configuration of Searles School on Bridge Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Searles School: Why not residential?

By Thursday, Nov 5, 2015 Viewpoints 9

On Dec 16 the Select Board of GB will decide on a Special Permit for “The Berkshire” hotel, based on its merits and its demerits. Unless the Town Counsel has already found the proposal unlawful (a very real possibility), the Selectboard will hear from the people, then make a tough call, and an unexpectedly lively chapter in local politics will come to an end.

Meanwhile, why don’t we take the next six weeks to further the conversation that’s already taking place all over town: What do we really want for Great Barrington? What do we really need?

Remember 2008? The Great Recession was no joke. But it’s over and so many good things are already on the way. Plenty of new affordable housing is working its way through a long process at the New England Log Homes site. St. James Place will soon be a terrific cultural center, thanks to a community-minded couple. Bridge Street has gotten a $2.1 million grant for improvements. The local economy is recovering and fixer-uppers are being renovated. And someday soon, Main Street will be replanted with trees. (Yes, people, they will be small!)

So what’s missing? In my view the answer is simple: more locals. More of us living downtown. More community.

And that calls for residential.

Many couples who live in the Berkshires are done with their big house in the woods, or their farm of many acres, or their empty nest. They now want to live in the midst of things: restaurants, movies, concerts, the library. They’d be happy to find a loft, a condo or a cottage that’s walking distance to a quart of milk or an art show, their favorite bakery or café. If we build it, they will come.

There are ripple effects from new housing downtown. Density brings prosperity. It’s obvious that residents use a wider range of local goods and services than tourists — and more often. Residents furnish homes, shop for food, hire tradesmen and craftspeople, share referrals. One building downtown can generate as much business for the local economy as a dozen houses in the woods — and the equivalent amount in jobs and taxes.

Most importantly, community comes from residents, not tourists. Tourists come here because of our vibrant community.

So let’s keep thinking and looking with open eyes at the new chapter that’s set to begin.

Personally, I don’t think we need a 95-room hotel and conference center, you might have heard, and I do hope enough of us can agree to say no.

But I do think we need us — more of us. The people.

_____

The author has made an offer to purchase Searles School, with the intention of converting it to a residential complex with 10 to 12 units.


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