‘Innkeeper eyes Marriott’’ was the Eagle’s headline back in the spring of 2012 when I first announced plans for a 94-room hotel in the city. A lot has changed since then as hopes for a successful conclusion melted away like a spring thaw in the Berkshires. So, with my Courtyard by Marriott project thwarted, I looked south to bordering Lenox, the hospitality epicenter of Western Mass.
One might say that adding more of that juicy no-impact room tax revenue (about
$300,000) to the hotel-rich village beautiful is something like tossing apples into an orchard. As some may recall, this Dan Fox Drive parcel was specially added to the abutting business zone by the City Council a few years back to permit a hotel and restaurant proposal. While this slightly out of the way location sacrificed a bit of visual exposure, it promised safety and bucolic tranquility, those mission-critical ingredients so essential to a successful Berkshire hotel.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that perceptions of missed opportunities have colored the collective conscience of Pittsfielders. Older residents recall the demolition of the historic train station to pave the way for what never happened or in a more recent example, a field of dreams that didn’t come true. Add morose sentiments to the effects of a slow and painful withdrawal of benefit-rich jobs and tax assistance from a generous electric company and cynicism is sure to abound. I wish I had a dollar’s discount on professional fees for every local head-shaker I’ve encountered over the past six months.
So, with this backdrop and based on my own experience, I’ll offer an opinion on just how well the largest town in the county really functions in matters of economic development. Did the city screw up -- again -- as so many of the disappointed pundits assert? Is Pittsfield incapable of guiding a cash cow of a project through the permitting process? Are these perma-bears in command of the facts in this case, or simply bathing in their own self-fulfilled prophecies?
Let me qualify my response. I met with and sought approval from the development, building, public works, police, fire, health and assessors departments, conservation commission, community development board and mayor. Let me also say, unreservedly and emphatically, that City Hall’s treatment of my hotel proposal was superb and the permitting practices near flawless. I was particularly impressed with the well-oiled site plan review process whereby the particulars of the plan are provided to all departments. The roundtable meetings are repeated until each department is satisfied. Other local communities might do well to follow this practice, at least for larger projects.
Unfortunately the Dan Fox Drive Marriott fell victim to certain forces beyond my or Pittsfield’s control. All projects that disturb a 100-foot buffer from known wetlands are susceptible to appeals to the state’s environmental department. Such procedural appeals are certain show stoppers when a well-timed delay can spell disaster. All the praise from the city’s own conservation commission and third-party reviewers are of little help when the outcome is beyond their jurisdiction. Oh well, all is fair in love and war! One should never decry the well-known hazards of one’s occupation.
This outsider has become keenly aware of the massive headwinds that face Pittsfield as it wrestles with the burdensome commercial tax rate that likely has detoured potential real estate investments, which are so vital to any municipality. The fallout from a diminished industrial base has been a crippling handicap to many a small city and while it "takes a village," it also takes a village time. With creativity and proactive initiatives, it is possible to achieve some real successes in this area, especially if the practice of negotiating Tax Increment Financing (TIF) allowances are used to help soften the rather punitive commercial tax rate of $35.17, more than twice the residential tariff.
I hope that the misconceptions as to the demise of the Marriott project can be replaced by greater appreciation of the many hard-working and progressive members of Pittsfield’s departments and boards, to whom I offer my public appreciation and esteem.
Joseph M. Toole is president of Toole Lodging Group Inc.