Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Can we really fill all these hotel rooms?
LENOX — Who's going to stay in all these new hotels being built or expanded in Lenox and the vicinity?
That's the most frequently-asked question I've heard this summer, so here are some possible answers as more rooms come on line next year and beyond.
From all available anecdotal evidence, this has been a blockbuster season for tourism. That's music to the ears of town leaders who rely heavily on taxes from lodging and meals to make municipal ends meet and avoid wallet-busting property tax increases.
One veteran restaurant owner told me that he's had the busiest season since 2008, just before the Great Recession cut deeply into tourism, restaurant visits, second-home sales and many other aspects of our lives. Local retailers, fighting back against the online sales behemoths like Amazon, L.L. Bean and numerous others, are whistling a happy tune.
We put up with traffic congestion and parking challenges because summer will be in the rearview mirror in just a few weeks.
Quality accommodations in the area's better lodging destinations are hard to come by, at least on weekends. Berkshire County has about 4,200 rooms available, and 933 of them are in Lenox. Developers who rely on market research see growth potential, but they have to put together a specific business plan targeted to their intended customers.
There are five major projects in Lenox either under construction or pending.
Most visible is the Toole Companies' Courtyard by Marriott, rising rapidly along Routes 7 and 20 across from Lenox Commons. The 92-room hotel, expected to open next May, is an $8.3 million investment designed to attract travelers who seek out the Courtyard brand for its reputation and for the loyalty perks that come with frequent bookings at the 924 current U.S. and Canadian Courtyards. There are 166 Courtyards in the pipeline.
After Labor Day, the Mahida Hospitality group is slated to begin razing the decrepit Magnuson Hotel, just to the north, and then building Lenox Manor, an extended-stay, 100-suite facility with kitchenettes and a massive event center that could accommodate 500 guests.
That project, pegged at $23 million and aimed at a fall 2017 opening, seeks to attract year-round business and leisure travelers for conferences, large social gatherings and for visitors who want a more prolonged Berkshire experience. It's likely to be branded as a Marriott Residence Inn or a Hilton Homewood Suites.
Still tied up in legal limbo is the proposed Travaasa Experiential Resorts project at Elm Court, primarily in Stockbridge but with an entrance and road frontage in Lenox. A year ago, eight neighbors appealed to Massachusetts Land Court to overturn the Lenox Zoning Board's 4-1 approval of the 112-room, $50 million resort.
The trial begins Aug. 16 with a site visit and the first of three consecutive scheduled hearing dates. It could take up to a year for the judge's ruling, and whoever loses could take the case to the state Court of Appeals.
Then there's the recently announced expansion and renovation of the historic Cranwell property. The Miraval Group, owner of a successful resort in Tucson, Arizona, that resembles Canyon Ranch, proposes to spend at least $30 million on a major reboot, with 43 additional rooms, a new guest cottage, spa and other facilities designed to attract women over 35. Residents of condos and townhouses on or near the site have some concerns; the Lenox Zoning Board may approve it, with some conditions, on Aug. 29 or soon thereafter.
Finally, developers of the Spring Lawn project adjacent to Shakespeare & Company are pursuing designs for what they call "an extraordinary luxury hotel complex on 29-plus acres." Local investor Rob Coakley reports that "the centerpiece will be the existing Spring Lawn estate with 19 bedrooms, plus 76 rooms to be built in the Berkshire Cottage traditional style. The complex will be filled with a wide variety of amenities, including a toboggan run, skating facility and yoga/fitness center."
In a message on Friday, Coakley said the required construction capital is being raised ahead of final plans to be presented to the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals by mid-to late fall this year. With a phased-in build out, the total cost is expected to be $40 million, he added.
So, grand total and not including Spring Lawn, there's $150 million to be invested in Lenox alone, on top of last year's $15 million, 95-room Hilton Garden Inn just over the city line in Pittsfield, and the 45-room, $14 million Hotel on North on downtown North Street. In Great Barrington, town approval last spring of the Mahida group's project, The Berkshire at the former Searles School on Bridge Street, adds 88 rooms and a $25 million investment.
At 1Berkshire Strategic Alliance, the countywide economic development organization that has incorporated the former Berkshire Visitors Bureau, Executive Vice-President Lauri Klefos has marshaled plenty of evidence to support the notion of a hospitality industry boom.
The latest available annual report she compiled for 2014 cited 3,774 Berkshire hospitality jobs and $426 million in direct visitor spending ($170 million in Lenox) fueling the county's leading growth industry, with spending up 25 percent since 2009.
Thus, the demand for more and better rooms designed to cater to the younger crowd the region seeks to attract by emphasizing not only culture and scenery but all-season outdoor recreation appealing to many visitors who want a health and fitness-oriented sojourn in the country.
Like it or not — some longtime residents are skeptical and resent our growing dependence on hospitality to keep our economy chugging along — tourism and second-home residents are the lifeblood of the Berkshires.
Next time you're stuck in traffic or need to walk a few minutes from a parking spot not directly in front of your destination, take a deep breath and offer silent thanks for the county's great and growing appeal to the many visitors not fortunate enough to live here.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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