Great Barrington hotel plans would preserve former Searles school


Photo Gallery | Special permit hearing for former Searles Middle School

GREAT BARRINGTON — The Mahida family has formally unveiled plans to convert the former Searles Middle School into an upscale hotel they say will maintain the character of the historic building and boost the downtown economy.

The proposal presented on Wednesday night called for the historic structure to be preserved — a turnaround from earlier plans that sought to demolish the building.

Still, the plan was met with mixed reviews by the dozens of residents in attendance, many of whom had turned out to voice their concerns about project.

Led by Chrystal and Vijay Mahida, the developers outlined how the $25 million, 95-room facility with indoor swimming pool, 60-seat restaurant and a conference center will architecturally be in keeping with the neighborhood.

In addition, the couple and their development team expect the hotel, to be called The Berkshire, will generate between $450,000 and $575,000 in property and rooms taxes.

If the hotel is built, the downtown will be rid of a decade-old eyesore, according to the developer's attorney, Kathleen McCormick, of Great Barrington.

"It's a blighted property, vacant property, vandalized property I don't want to see in my community," she said.

The developers spent nearly 90 minutes of the more than three-hour hearing touting the merits of a proposal during the Board of Selectmen's special permit hearing at Monument Mountain Regional High School. The well-attended meeting rivaled most annual town meetings in recent years held in the school auditorium.

The board took no action on the five permits the Mahidas need to move forward and continued the hearing until 7 p.m. Jan. 20, at the high school. Chairman Sean Stanton noted a minimum four out of five board members must approve each permit.

Earlier drawings filed with the town called for the 105-year-old structure to be demolished and the hotel to be built on the existing foundation. That plan was met with opposition from residents who sought to preserve the historic building.

It also drew an opinion by town counsel that suggested "at least some of the historic structure ... must be preserved as a part of the project" for it to qualify for an exemption to a May 2014 bylaw limiting new lodging to 45 rooms.

The hearing was continued until Wednesday night, with nearly 20 people lining up at the podium after the presentation. Some praised the project; others predicted it will fail or worse, economically ruin the town.

"This is the best possible use you're going to see come down for this piece of property," said Tony Blair, former chairman of the town's school building re-use committee.

Searles was vacated in 2005 when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District opened the Monument Valley Middle School not far from the high school.

Hotelier Marc Fasteau was among the naysayers doubting the Mahidas promise for success, calling for public disclosure of all their financial projections.

"The hotel market in Great Barrington is not an upscale market," he said.

The Mahidas opened the hearing questioning those predicting doom for their project, pointing to the Comfort Inn & Suites they operate on Stockbridge Road. Earlier this year, the family opened the $14 million Hilton Garden Inn along Route 7 & 20 near the Pittsfield/Lenox line.

"I'm proud of my success, I'm not going to apologize for my success and I thank the town for my success," Vijay Mahida said.

Anne Fredericks, however, said that success came at the expense of local regulations and businesses. She criticized the Mahidas for circumventing the town bylaw limiting lodging in the downtown to 45 rooms.

"This would give the Mahida family a monopoly on hotel rooms in town," she said.

But Gary Happ, owner of Barrington Brewery said, if anything, Great Barrington needs the project, noting many of his out-of-town customers often stay out of town.

"There is a shortage of hotel rooms in Great Barrington," he said. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Nevertheless, some 60 local business owners have petitioned the board to reject the project.

After several years of sitting idle, a New Jersey-based developer Camus Corp. first proposed in 2009 to retrofit the building for mixed use. That plan eventually fell through, in part due to the sagging economy.

The structure was purchased by abutters Iredale Cosmetics two years ago. Iredale, in turn, negotiated a purchase and sale agreement with the Mahidas to sell the structure for $850,000, pending approval of the special permits.

Within the last year, Iredale completed restoration of the former Bryant Elementary School next door to Searles, converting it into the company's new headquarters.

The Mahidas vowed their project would mirror the architectural and aesthetic look of the new-look Bryant building and landscaping.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.


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