LENOX - In a no-holds-barred, candid-yetcordial conference exploring the community's strengths and weaknesses, local government leaders spent a half-day on Monday setting priorities, identifying shortcomings and seeking cures for non-residents' negative perceptions of the town, including "snobbery."
The annual brainstorming retreat by the fivemember Select Board and Town Manager Gregory Federspiel, held this year at the Gateways Inn, focused on identifying frontburner challenges - town finances, economic development and tourism marketing, necessary sewer and water system upgrades, and the impact of the pending "Rest of River" PCB cleanup along the Housatonic.
But tourism as a high-impact driver of revenue for town coffers - and how to expand it - was targeted. Annual revenues from the town's share of the rooms and meals tax have increased to $1.8 million a year, including a 3.2 percent lodging-tax revenue gain from June through August compared to last summer.
"What else do we have other than tourism?" Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler observed. "Other than a little bit of health care, everything revolves around people coming to town."
A weakness, Fowler said, is "the perception that we're a snobbish and exclusive kind of town ... that we don't have the kind of shops that cater to locals. And that's not true. We do."
But Selectman David Roche countered that most restaurant and retail-store prices, especially in the summer, are pegged to income brackets over $100,000 a year, far above average pay scales locally.
"I think the perception's well-deserved," he said.
Proposed solutions for the town's shortcomings include hiring an events and marketing professional, holding more joint meetings with other local boards, and keeping the door open for ideas from the public at Select Board sessions.
Turning to the positive, Roche cited the strength of the current Select Board. He added, however, that "what's dragging us down is that our sandwich-board signage is still unresolved."
Despite some progress, Roche said, related problems feed the notion that the town is unfriendly to business.
"We have a lot of progress to make in those areas," Roche added, citing a surge of illegal signs downtown and on the Route 7 and 20 commercial strip. "If we're going to create the rules, somebody's gotta enforce them, or there's no sense in doing it."
Fowler acknowledged issues some residents and business owners may encounter with the building inspector, William Thornton, similar to what other towns experience with their inspectors.
"If you go to him initially and talk to him about what you want to do, he's a wealth of information and help," Fowler said. "If you try to pull something on him, he's going to come down on you hard, both feet. And that's where the problem is - people want not to do everything they're required to do, or they don't want to do it in a timely fashion." Selectman John McNinch said he perceived a change in the building department - " they're very inconsistent in everything they do right now, and that's very irritating for everyone. They go out and actively look now for problems, and the complaints I'm getting on a daily basis are more and more severe."
Running local government " as seamlessly as possible, smoothly, behind- the- scenes" was cited as a priority by Selectman Edward Lane, while board member Channing Gibson emphasized that the town's identity must be closely hitched to the Berkshires overall. He also touted the community's assets as an outdoor recreation center.
On marketing of local events, Fowler voiced dissatisfaction over the lack of a "real relationship" between Town Hall and the Lenox Chamber of Commerce.
He said the recent tourism promotion efforts had "died on the vine," and he advocated the hiring of an events coordinator to work for the town.
Roche agreed that an effort to involve the chamber in marketing attractions " hasn't moved very far off the dime."
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In their own words . . .
At their brainstorming retreat Monday, town government leaders in Lenox discussed challenges facing the community:
On lack of unity in the business sector:
Selectman Kenneth Fowler: "This town is fragmented as far as the businesses are concerned. They won't form that community that they need to form to realize that the Berkshires are a destination and that thinking outside of their own walls is the way to go. How we get there is we'll have to ask somebody to do that job for us, a dynamic person."
On the shortcomings of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce:
Selectman John McNinch: "I'm opposed to putting more town funds into the organization until it turns itself around. What do we do to make it right? Only 65 to 70 percent of local businesses are members."
Selectman Kenneth Fowler: "There is a terrible problem between the Chamber of Commerce and the local merchants. At the recent Apple Squeeze, there was a declining tie-in with in-town businesses as more outside groups were brought in."
Town Manager Gregory Federspiel, who served Stowe, Vt., in that capacity in the 1990s: "95 to 99 percent of the merchants there have bought into an organization with a good track record."
On high prices at eateries and stores catering to tourists:
Selectman John McNinch: "What we're missing here is serving our locals. Our businesses, as we all know, don't serve the residents - there are so many who won't shop in Lenox."
Selectman Edward Lane: "There's nothing for them here."