PITTSFIELD -- The developer of a Hilton Garden Inn on South Street believes it's time for the Berkshires to start thinking of the recent flurry of upscale lodging proposals as a necessary and positive evolution.
Vijaysinh Mahida also called on his local rivals in the lodging business to focus more on enhancing this region as a tourist destination competing with other areas than on racing one another to dominate the local market.
"I view it as a positive thing," he said, referring to the several projects either proposed or in the planning stages in the county.
These include conversion of the Spring Lawn mansion in Lenox into a 95-room, high-end resort; a condominum project at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, the Patriot Suites time-share complex on Dan Fox Drive, and Mahida's Fairfield Inn and Suites project at the site of his Comfort Inn in Great Barrington. He also has an option to purchase land near Brushwood Farms in Lenox to build a Comfort Inn.
Appeals against the Hilton Garden project and a rival Courtyard Marriott project -- along with a lawsuit targeting the Hilton site right-of-way -- led this year to the label "hotel wars." But Mahida contended Thursday that energy has been misplaced, when the real competition for the Berkshires is Cape Cod, Saratoga, N.Y., and other tourist areas.
Saratoga and Conway, N.H., were going through a similar evolution two decades ago, Mahida said, when a burst of new lodging construction transformed and revitalized those tourist destinations. Today, he said, those areas have the major lodging chains and unique resorts tourists want to see when they decide where to vacation or visit.
"We have 4,500 [lodging] rooms in the Berkshires, but many of them are outdated, and tired," Mahida said. Some of those facilities will likely "cycle out" in favor of new development, he said.
Developer Joseph M. Toole, owner of Toole Lodging Group, has been Mahida's most intense local rival since proposing a 92-room Courtyard Marriott hotel on Dan Fox Drive, about a quarter mile from the Hilton building site. Both projects have been delayed this year because of legal or permitting challenges.
Toole said earlier he believed the first of the hotels to be constructed would be the only one in that area of Pittsfield, and he reiterated that Thursday. "If those two brands are thrust onto the Pittsfield marketplace at the same time, I don't think it could be a very good situation," he said.
During the permitting process for the projects, each has been held up. A corporate entity with ties to Toole purchased a small parcel along the driveway to the Hilton building site and is challenging use of the right-of-way for the hotel in a suit in Berkshire Superior Court.
Meanwhile, Toole's Marriott project on Dan Fox Drive was halted when members of an environmental group challenged its permit to build near a wetlands on the property. Toole contends the attorney assisting that group, Elisabeth Goodman of Williamstown, "has not denied" being hired by Mahida.
Mahida said Thursday he has "no connection" with Goodman.
Toole recently announced a proposal to develop a Courtyard Marriott at the Brushwood Farms site on Route 7 in Lenox, rather than on Dan Fox Drive. While also close to the Hilton site, "Lenox is a different market, with a different profile," he said. "I feel comfortable there."
Asked whether the court challenge to the Hilton right-of-way might now be dropped, Toole declined to comment on the suit.
Attorney William E. Martin, of Martin, Oliveira and Hamel, who is defending Mahida and his Prem Management Inc. in the lawsuit, said he is confident going into a hearing in early January on his motion for a summary judgment in his client's favor.
In part, Martin said, that is based on the state Department of Transportation, which also is named in the suit for having approved the curb cut entrance from South Street, filing its own motion for summary judgment.
Another challenge to the Hilton project -- an appeal of the building permit mounted by the owners of the Comfort Inn across South Street from the site -- was rejected by the city Zoning Board of Appeals, and the deadline for further appeals has passed, Martin said.
"I'm very confident the [Hilton] project will start this spring," Mahida said Thursday.
Toole said that if the Lenox site is approved for his Marriott project, he won't try to build a hotel on the Dan Fox Drive but will consider other uses for the parcel. He said he's confident wetlands-related issues can be resolved before the state Department of Environmental Management.
"The Berkshires has cultural attractions, skiing and other components," Mahida said. "We have to find mid-priced, good-quality inns."
All of the projects proposed this year "are good for the Berkshires," he said, and a positive development.
Toole said Tuesday the question of how many lodging projects are too many for the region "is an abstract question," involving lodging brands, demographics and other factors, and he doubts anyone can easily predict the saturation point.
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