Steve Sears doesn't see him self as a developer, but he's starting to be come one.
Sears, his wife Maria Cruz and their business partner Willa Kuh, are currently working on a master plan they announced last fall to re-use the former Crane stationery factory on Flansburg Avenue.
The trio envision a grocery store featuring Berkshire made foods, a restaurant or two, and retail, office and artisan space in the 105,000-square-foot building that was closed to paper manufacturing two years ago.
The Berkshire Carousel project and several other tenants have already committed to being in the structure. Sears, who worked for Crane for 25 years, said the carousel and those other tenants should help attract other entities, and will help reconnect the 1880s brick structure to the center of town.
"We want to grow somewhat [steadily], with two to three years for a complete build out," he said. "I see the carousel allowing Dalton to tap into the arts community."
The one-time Crane building, originally known as the Dalton Shoe Co., is among six vacant, once vibrant Berkshire manufacturing facilities that are currently being targeted for redevelopment. If all goes as planned, the Eagle, Greylock, and Columbia mills in Lee, the Niagara Mill in Lenox Dale, and Berkshire Hathaway Mill No. 4 in Adams also are candidates for re-use, although those projects could take several years to complete, according to their potential developers.
Last summer, Lee received a $175,000 federal planning grant to create a community-based strategy for revitalizing the Lee and Lenox Dale mills. They are all currently or formerly owned by Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc., the paper company that closed them in 2008. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is overseeing the two-year study that BRPC officials expect will kick into high gear this spring.
BRPC senior planner Melissa Provencher says the key to reusing these old mills includes viability of their redevelopment, the condition of their buildings and the historic connection to their communities.
"These buildings can have multiple lives," Provencher said. "I love when the history and character [of the mills] can be kept."
"When the bones are good, why change it?" she added.
Financing is always one of the major challenges that the redevelopers of former mills face, and Jeff Cohen is no exception. The Great Barrington resident is spearheading the re-use of the Eagle and Berkshire Hathaway mills, and has obtained purchase and sale agreements with the owners of both properties. He expects the sale to close on the Berkshire Hathaway property on April 1. Eventually, Cohen plans to seek approval from Adams officials to convert the 225,000-square-foot brick building into 150 affordable housing units.
As for the Eagle Mill at the north end of Lee's Main Street, Cohen is crafting a blueprint that calls for a hotel, restaurants, retail, office space and affordable housing. Cohen unveiled his proposal to The Eagle in September, but he and his development team will publicly discuss the project for the first time on Thursday, April 24 at Lee Middle and High School. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.
In both cases, Cohen says securing historic and housing tax credits from the state are crucial to funding the reuse, provided the projects have communitywide support.
"It's important for a seamless transition [of the Eagle Mill] from the current neighborhood to becoming a village within the neighborhood," he said.
Donna Cesan, Adams' community development director, said a potential re-use of the 115-year-old Berkshire Hathaway Mill on Hoosac Street would fit in nicely with the town's downtown revitalization efforts.
"We're definitely interested in more housing in the area," she said.
The newest developer to emerge on the local mill re-use scene is Niagara Worldwide of St. Louis and Niagara, Wis. The multifaceted company that prides itself on revitalizing dormant industrial sites an nounced in early March that it expects to close a deal with Schweitzer-Mauduit for the Columbia, Greylock and Niagara mills soon.
Niagara Worldwide President Eric Spirtas has vowed to work with local business and community leaders to determine the best uses for the three paper mills, with an ambitious timetable of a 24- to 36-month redevelopment.
Lee Community Develop ment Corp. member John Philpott has been one of several Lee officials working behind the scenes looking for the right suitor to breathe life back into the mills. Philpott believes Niagara's resume will bode well for the three mills and the town.
"They have fairly extensive experience with older buildings and a solid financial background," he said in a recent Eagle interview. "I am cautiously optimistic they will do something with those buildings."
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233.