LEE — After months of lobbying for support, developers have persuaded federal officials to back a compromise historic preservation plan for the $70 million revitalization of the Eagle Mill.
The National Park Service's verbal commitment, made Friday to Jeffrey Cohen, principal of Mill Renaissance LLC, sets in motion a proposal to demolish a portion of the complex considered crucial for the mixed-use proposal to move forward.
And it helps overcome a potential logjam between the developer and the Massachusetts Historical Commission, whose endorsement is key to millions in tax credits necessary to finance the project.
"We are pleasantly surprised by the decision," Cohen said on Tuesday. "In the absence of the decision, we would have demolished all the buildings and built new ones, mostly residential."
Initial plans called for the demolition of the modern Butler and factory buildings on the eastern portion of the site to make room for 78 market-rate and workforce housing units. Developers felt that the buildings weren't worthy of preserving and lack historical significance for a paper mill founded in the early 1800s.
The plan also called for the destruction of the central portion of the 200-year-old complex, which would have been replaced by an open air mall.
But the Massachusetts Historical Commission, balked at the notion of razing any buildings on the site, including those that had been added in later years. The National Park Service supported that position.
As a compromise, the developer submitted to the state a revised proposal that maintains the central portion of the 200-year-old complex and all of its historic features. Only the late-19th century loading dock on the south elevation will be demolished from this portion of the building now.
The state agency made no ruling on the compromise, kicking it forward to the National Park Service, which has the final say on historic preservation work and the accompanying tax credits. The park service support now requires the developer to submit more detailed restoration plans to the federal agency.
"With the National Park Service backing the project, that clears a major hurdle, this makes it harder for the state to say no," said Lee Selectman David Consolati.
In addition, the development team must still secure official historic designation of the buildings being saved; either through creation of a historic district or the structures being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That process still requires going through state Historical Commission, before seeking additional federal approval.
"In essence we have [federal] approval for the project," Cohen said, "but we're not quite there yet."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, vows to lobby the state Historical Commission for its endorsement once the park service puts its support in writing.
"We'll deal with the state as diplomatically as possible once we get that letter in hand," said Pignatelli, a supporter of the project. "It's time to reboot this project, which will be a huge economic shot in the arm for the community and the Berkshires."
The mill's historical significance is key to Mill Renaissance's request for up to $5.4 million in state historic tax credits, supported by the Lee Historical Commission. The developer also will be seeking $5.4 million in federal historic tax credits. If received, the $10.8 million would augment additional public/private investment that would fund the reuse of the site.
Once financing, permitting and environmental hurdles are cleared, the developers expect the project to take four to five years to complete.
The mixed-use revitalization calls for retail and office space, a community center and workforce apartments on the site of the former Schweitzer-Mauduit International paper plant. A hotel and restaurant are also being considered.
The Eagle Mill, located along the Housatonic River at the north end of Main Street, closed along with three others in Lee and Lenox Dale in May 2008, putting more than 160 people out of work.
Cohen, who has a purchase-and-sale agreement for the complex, hopes revitalizing the mill will help replace the lost factory jobs and be a catalyst that sparks other economic growth in Lee — especially for the former Schweitzer mills upstream: Columbia, Greylock and Niagara.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.