By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Eagle
It’s all beginning to make sense now.
At first glance, the surge of hotel projects in a five-mile zone between the Pittsfield-Lenox line and Stockbridge has appeared rather baffling. By my count, within a year or two an extra 550 rooms could be added to the 4,500 already competing for tourist dollars in Berkshire County. At present, nearly 1,000 of those are in Lenox.
But the "no room at the inn" signs generally go up only on summer and fall-foliage weekends. Year-round, according to Smith Travel Research, fewer than half the available rooms in the county’s major hostelries have heads in beds, to borrow some hospitality industry lingo. Even the average in July and August hovers around 65 percent, indicating that there are vacancies mid-week.
Here’s the list of new hotels either under construction, awaiting approval from town boards or tied up in litigation:
n The Hilton Garden Inn, 95 rooms on South Street (Route 7 & 20) in Pittsfield near the Lenox town line. On hold until legal challenges from a competitor across the highway are resolved.
n Berkshire Mountain Lodge, 140 rooms on Dan Fox Drive in Pittsfield, formerly the Patriot Suites. Soon to reopen following major renovations, with 140 suites available for time-share customers.
n Courtyard by Marriott, 92 rooms, now relocated to a portion of the Brushwood Farms property across from the Lenox Commons mixed-use complex. The project, facing delays posed by a quixotic challenge from environmentalists, abandoned its Dan Fox Drive location in favor of a site that needs zoning board permits but may have a smooth ride since it’s in an area ideal for development.
n Spring Lawn Resort, an ambitious 94-room project next to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox that has just won a favorable recommendation from the town’s Planning Board and now must navigate a more complex route through the Zoning Board of Appeals.
n Elm Court Inn, nearly 100 rooms on Old Stockbridge Road, just over the border from Lenox, under development with most local government approvals in place.
According to hospitality industry experts, each proposal can be justified on its own merits.
Spring Lawn and Elm Court, known as boutique hotels, would cater to high-end visitors from New York and Boston who have plenty of spending power, thanks to the stock market run-up and an economic recovery that has benefited the nation’s most affluent group but has yet to trickle down to the middle class and below.
The Hilton and Marriott hotels, with less expensive rates, are aimed at travelers who flock to well-known brands in order to win frequent-guest points that yield a variety of perks. These destinations also feature the modern amenities that many visitors crave.
The Berkshire Mountain Lodge, renamed just a few weeks ago, represents the revival of a time-share market that took a severe beating during the recession but now is poised for recovery.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s crunch some numbers that apply to projects such as the Hilton and the Marriott. Assume a $200 per room nightly average year-round. Based on 50 percent occupancy, annual revenue would total nearly $3.5 million.
People in the know report that a 10 percent profit margin is par for the course. So, a rock-bottom minimum of $350,000 a year for the hotel owners looks like a tidy profit.
Here in Lenox, my adopted hometown, the benefits outlined by the developers of the newly hatched Marriott proposal are obvious -- town coffers would see a one-time $400,000 bonanza from a water and sewer line hookup fee, another $75,000 a year in real estate taxes, and close to $300,000 a year in extra "tourist tax" revenue. Hundreds of new jobs will be created.
Of course, town boards must exercise their due diligence, and it would be folly to assume a slam-dunk for proposals seeking approvals.
But developers have researched the market and concluded that Berkshire County remains a top destination for visitors, especially with more attractions year-round. They say new rooms would expand the hospitality pie without jeopardizing the resorts and smaller inns already on the scene.
If all these assumptions turn out to be valid, the arrival of these big-league hotels may be a win-win for the tourist economy that looms ever larger as our county’s fastest-growing private-sector industry.
At certain times of the year, we "locals" may grumble about crowds and traffic congestion. But if you’ve ever lived in a metropolitan area, you know that such complaints should be laughed off as the small price we pay for living in a highly desirable region whose considerable merits should never be taken for granted.
This column was submitted for publication in Sunday’s edition. The column that ran Sunday already had been published in an earlier edition.
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