LEE -- Armed with a $175,000 federal grant, the town of Lee hopes to jump-start the redevelopment of four defunct paper mills -- one already being seriously considered for reuse, according to local officials.


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Lee recently received funding from the EPA's Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Program -- one of 20 grants awarded across the country -- toward creating a community-based strategy for revitalizing the former Eagle, Columbia and Greylock mills. The fourth vacant factory is the Niagara Mill in Lenox Dale.

The two-year project calls for studying the existing condition of the four privately owned commercial sites, conducting a market study and seeking plenty of public input on their reuse, according the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. The BRPC prepared the grant application on behalf of the town.

"The expectation wouldn't be to develop the sites collectively -- that's not realistic," said Melissa Provencher, a BRPC senior planner and brownfields specialist. "But if we can get one site to advance forward, based on the community's vision, hopefully we can have a domino effect."

Following some behind-the-scenes work, Provencher expects the public input portion of the planing to begin in early 2014.

"This is something that will be shaped by the people, for the people," said Marilyn Hansen, a member of the Lee Community Development Corp. The Lee CDC has been assisting the town in promoting the redevelopment of the mills since they closed five years ago.

Meanwhile, Lee Selectman David Consolati said on Wednesday there continue to be inquiries and interest in the mills, with one potential "serious developer" on the horizon. Consolati couldn't comment on who is eyeing which mill, but he's hopeful it will lead to a concrete redevelopment project.

Schweitzer-Maduit International, Inc. was the last manufacturer to operate the four mills that shut down in the spring of 2008, putting about 170 people out of work.

Schweitzer-Maduit still owns three of the properties, having sold the Eagle Mill in 2010 to a prospective development company from the Albany, N.Y., area. Eagle Mill Enterprises bought the 6.4-acre parcel on the Housatonic River for $450,000, with the intent to convert the site into a mixed-use project of affordable and market-rate housing, retail, professional, office and studio space.

The developers never presented a formal project to the town for approval, and late last year they put the Eagle Mill site up for sale with an asking price of $1.1 million.

While the four mills closing dealt a blow to the local economy and Lee's tax base, the town has managed to survive and thrive, thanks to a public-private partnership to revitalize the downtown business district. The renovation of two major buildings on Main Street, a new 60-space municipal parking lot and an influx of new shops, restaurants and other commercial ventures in the downtown area have Lee poised to attract developers.

"Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights our downtown is booked almost year round," Consolati said.

Town officials say investment in the public infrastructure also puts Lee in a good light. Local taxpayers have spent tens of millions of dollars in the last decade to erect a new elementary school, renovate its high school and build new water and sewage treatment plants.

"We can compete for new business because of the attractiveness of the community, the ingenuity of its people and our location," said Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason, referring to the town's high-traffic location off Exit 2 of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.