LEE — Concerned about the viability of a proposed hotel on the site, the developer of the $70 million mixed-use project at the Eagle Mill is considering additional housing instead.
Jeffrey Cohen, principal developer of Mill Renaissance LLC, said he would prefer to keep a hotel as part of the project, but he has questioned whether the current tourism market can feasibly support lodging on the site of the former paper manufacturing plant on the north end of Main Street.
The mill reuse also includes retail and office space and initially 78 units of 80 percent affordable and 20 percent market rate housing.
"I'm a little concerned the average occupancy rate in the Berkshires is apparently 60 percent," he said. "Sixty percent is generally perceived as break-even."
Cohen has spoken to three Berkshire innkeepers about the project, with Main Street Hospitality Group of Stockbridge, parent company of the Red Lion Inn, expressing the strongest interest in developing and operating the hotel.
During a recent project update before the Lee Select Board, Cohen said he would consider expanding the housing aspect of the project if a hotel isn't financially viable. He vowed to keep town officials, including the Lee Planning Board, in the loop before a final decision is made.
Selectwoman Patricia Carlino wants her board to be part of that ongoing conversation.
"I can't in my good conscience give my OK to eliminating what's been presented, so far," she said.
Board Chairman Thomas Wickham favors a locally owned and operated hotel on the site.
"The Red Lion has a reputation and a brand name," he said.
As Mill Renaissance weighs the merits of a hotel, the development team is drawing up preliminary plans detailing the restoration and reuse of the buildings being saved.
The proposal maintains the majority of the 200-year old complex and all of its historic features up to the mid-1900s. Only the late-19th century loading dock on the south elevation will be demolished from the central portion of the mill.
Also set to be demolished are the modern Butler and factory buildings on the eastern portion of the site, location of the initial housing complex.
Once completed, the National Park Service must sign off on the preliminary plans — approval could come this fall — in order for the developer to start pursuing federal and state historic tax credits and other financing for the project.
The developer also will seek to have the Eagle Mill placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation key to obtaining the tax credits totaling up to $10.8 million.
If received, the credits 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 Eagle Mill closed along with three others in Lee and Lenox Dale in May 2008, all last operated by Schweitzer-Mauduit International, putting more than 160 people out of work.
Cohen, who has a purchase-and-sale agreement for the Eagle Mill, hopes revitalizing the complex 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.