Big Apple to Berkshires: Great Barrington town manager is latest transplant
GREAT BARRINGTON -- Farewell, Big Apple. Hello, Great Barrington.
When new Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin assumed the full-time duties of town manager last week, she became the latest New Yorker to travel north on Route 22 and embrace a change of lifestyle in Great Barrington that goes beyond a change of scenery with less concrete and more mountains.
"I really think moving here is going to be pretty seamless for me because my parents live here year-round," Tabakin said on her third day on the job.
Great Barrington has long been characterized as a town brimming with New Yorkers. Now, two of the town's largest institutions are being led by former New York public officials that learned their trade in America's biggest city.
Along with Tabakin, Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon spent nearly two decades in New York City and left as a policy executive for the New York City Department of Education when he came here five years ago. The city school department served 1.1 million children.
Dillon's job responsibilities in New York centered around 300 schools and covered budget, policy and the creation of new schools. The change in scenery in Great Barrington came with a learning curve.
"New York has this incredible energy, but Great Bar rington has a sense of investment and community," Dillon said.
In New York City, he grew accustomed to a bustling public transit system, designing systems to meet the broad needs of a diverse student population, and nights dining on an eclectic selection of food.
However, after 17 years, Dillon was seeking an opportunity to implement lasting change in a community-oriented town, and he found this with his current position in Great Barrington.
Dillon interviewed 200 local people within 90 days of receiving the Berkshire Hills job, and he said "the interconnectiveness is really amazing. It's something that's been really fun."
"Over time, the more I understand the multiple relationships, the more that informs my work," Dillon said.
The prevailing lesson he pulled in New York was a ZIP code shouldn't define a child's future. In Great Barrington, he's appreciative of the time people invest to support their children.
"We are really focused on relationships and there is an area for some growth in systems," Dillon said.
Rich with New York pride
Local real estate agents say New Yorkers are often looking to Great Barrington and its surrounding towns. Some are retirees; others are looking to become second homeowners; and some are looking for investments here.
Real estate agent Kim Wilder, of Barnbrook Real Estate, estimated that 75 percent of its second-home sales are to New York City residents, predominately from Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Wilder points to the opportunity to own land in a culturally vibrant area with a strong agricultural base.
Great Barrington resident Joe Carini made that transition in the late 1970s. He was the child of Italian immigrants raised in Little Italy and he said when he proposed moving he examined neighborhoods within a three-hour driving distance from New York.
"It was the feel of the place and geography and being able to go on Staten Island," Carini said.
Friends back in the city teased Carini about growing "bored" here, but he dismissed the notion and invited them up for skiing, to visit the lakes and embrace the outdoors.
"When I came up here, it was more of a counterculture lifestyle developing," said Carini, who notes that Great Barrington now has more parallels to a larger city.
Great Barrington resident Alan Chartock, known widely as an Eagle columnist and president of WAMC, was born in New York City and lives in Great Barrington. He moved to the Berkshires in his late 20s during the 1970s.
Chartock moved to Alford in 1971 before moving to Great Barrington in 1985. The only neighbor he knew in New York City was the resident across the hall who carried a spare key.
After moving to Alford, he left notes inviting his neighbors to a party and there wasn't a neighbor who didn't want to meet him.
"There's a different way of conducting yourself in New York City," Chartock said. "You might fight over a cab [in the city]. ... Courtesy and decency go a long way here."
His wife, Roselle Chartock, said acts of friendliness can go a long way to someone coming to the area from the city.
"It's important to have the most fun they can and explore everything," she said. "Get a real lay of the land. Really, really read everything you can .... about what's here, visit the museums and go to the activities."
Adjusting to surroundings
On her third day on the job after signing a three-year contract, Tabakin said the transition was going smoothly.
Tabakin earned a master's degree in urban planning from New York University and an executive certificate in construction management in the university's Polytechnic Insti tute in 2001. She worked in New York City's Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. She has previously managed a $280 million East River project and $300 million worth of new city parks.
In her former career as a senior economic development director, Tabakin said her work required "lots and lots of meetings and phone calls and conversations and making sure you pull the right people together to facilitate a right decision and decide a way to go."
A project was normally planned through a flurry of emails, whereas now she's able to gather everyone in a single room.
Tabakin said her top priority will likely be overseeing the renovation of Main Street in Great Barrington. She is still awaiting direction from the Board of Selectmen on strategic planning, but she expressed excitement about building the economy and promoting environmentally sustainable practices. Like so many others, she's intrigued about the availability of a faster fiber-optic Internet line.
There's also a broad range of infrastructure upgrades and environmental and land management issues that intrigue her.
Tabakin, though, has a "best of both worlds" philosophy when she considers Great Barrington and New York City.
"They're both great places," Tabakin said. "They're both places people want to come and visit and live."
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