Lee residents would like a say in mills' reuse
LEE -- Nancy and Mike Mosher would welcome a rejuvenated Greylock Mill across from their home.
"I think more like warehouse space and office space, never to the degree when it was a mill," Nancy Mosher said.
The Greylock Street couple would also appreciate a direct say in the type of businesses the mill's new owner, Niagara Worldwide, wants to have occupy the 50-year-old former paper making plant.
Since many of the homes in the area pre-date the mill built in 1964, the Moshers feel the neighborhood should have its own meeting with representatives of the company.
"We are the ones impacted the most, so our concerns should be heard separately," Mike Mosher said.
The Moshers spoke with The Eagle during a community-wide gathering for townspeople to weigh in on the best reuse of the Greylock, Columbia, and Eagle mills in Lee and Niagara Mill in Lenox Dale. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission sponsored the recent event at Greenock Country Club as part of the town's $175,000 federally funded effort to market the defunct factories for redevelopment. BRPC staff is conducting the study that also includes assessing the mills condition, dormant since Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc. shut them down in May 2008, putting about 170 people out of work.
Schweitzer-Mauduit recently sold the Greylock, Columbia and Niagara mills to Niagara Worldwide last month for $1.5 million, four years after unloading the Eagle Mill to a development company from the Albany, N.Y.,-area. Eagle Mill Enterprises never proposed a formal project for the 6.4-acre parcel and since late 2012 has had a purchase and sale agreement with Mill Renaissance LLC, lead by Jeffrey N. Cohen of Great Barrington. Cohen's group will buy the oldest of the four mills if they get local and state approval for an estimated $70 million investment to convert the factory into a mix use of workforce housing, retail and office space, restaurant and possibly a hotel.
The study set to wrap up in 2015 is independent of any potential redevelopment of the four mills, but the process can benefit from proposed reuses currently on the table, according to BRPC senior planner Melissa Provencher.
"We aren't looking to wait to get this plan written, we want to work on things now," she said. "Because the sale of the Niagara, Columbia and Greylock is recent, we believe [the new owners] will be open to suggestions for those sites."
Niagara Worldwide President Eric Spirtas has said in two separate Eagle phone interviews his company plans to seek input from town officials and local business leaders on reuse of the three mills. Given Greylock Mill is the youngest and ready for immediate reuse, Spirtas said last month two tenants already are being courted for that site.
While Lee has evolved into a destination spot due to a revitalized downtown, residents seem to want redevelopment, such as small manufacturing and educational/training facilities, that will have long-range benefits for the local workforce.
"Seems important not to rely on tourism so much," said Uli Nagel during the BRPC input meeting. "We need to make it attractive enough for people to work."
Cohen, who attended the meeting, told an Eagle reporter his reuse project for the Eagle Mill will complement the potential jobs Niagara Worldwide might generate with its redevelopment of the other three empty mills.
"It's great for us that they bought the mills and its great for them that we can provide housing for those workers," he said.
The time appears ripe for redeveloping the four mills, according to Ken Buckland of The Cecile Group, BRPC's consulting firm for the study. Based on a marketing assessment, Buckland noted demand for industrial/warehouse space is on the rise since the mills closed six years ago as is the towns population.
The number of Lee households grew by almost 6 percent between 2000 and 2010 compared to 0.16 percent for the rest of Berkshire County.
"There is a concentration of buying power, along with activity ... that makes the 6 percent a significant rate," he said.
Furthermore, Buckland finds Lee poised for economic development because of its zoning and strong infrastructure that includes new water and sewage treatment plants built within the past 15 years.
Nevertheless, town officials have recognized the need to upgrade the main municipal water line from the town reservoir through Main Street, which passes near or directly in front of the four mills. Lee is seeking a $5.5 million state grant to enlarge the water main in order to improve fire protection and provide an anticipated increase in water use associated with mill reuse and other development in town.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
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