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Fire at vacant Great Barrington school highlights delayed hotel project

Great Barrington Searles School

The former Searles School on Bridge Street. The long-vacant building is a target of vandals. Plans to turn it into a hotel have been delayed for six years.

This story was modified to correct the name of the entity that sold the school to the developer.

GREAT BARRINGTON — A weekend fire at the long vacant Searles School building Sunday has again highlighted the delay of plans to turn it into a hotel, and the vulnerability of the structure to vandals.

Broken windows and graffiti continue to bedevil the owners of what was once the Searles Middle and High School on Bridge Street.

The pandemic created another setback for owner Chrisoula Mahida to renovate the historic cluster of buildings.

The project by her company, 79 Bridge Street LLC, for an 88-room boutique hotel, was slated to begin in the spring of 2020 and completed by early summer of 2021.

A new incarnation of plans scrapped the bar and restaurant, and reduced the size of a meeting room, all of it cutting the total cost of the estimated $17 million to $19 million project by several million dollars.

That pandemic upended that movement, though remediation of asbestos and lead had already been completed.

Mahida could not be reached for comment about the status of the project. Her husband, Vijay Mahida, a hotel developer whose company is also driving the project, declined to comment.

Authorities announced Wednesday that a teenager is facing charges related to Sunday’s fire, which was contained to a single room and quickly extinguished. The suspect’s name was not released because they are under 17.

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In 2019 another youth was spotted on surveillance camera vandalizing the building.

Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon said while the delay is frustrating, there is nothing the town can do to help speed up the project since the property is privately owned.

“It was a large project to begin with, and I know the pandemic has slowed everything,” Bannon said.

Chrisoula Mahida bought the 65,000-square-foot building for $850,000 from RiverSchool Redevelopment in 2016 — 10 years after the school district vacated it. The building is now assessed by the town at $831,500.

The initial plans for a chain hotel there drew fire from a group of residents who thought the proposed hotel was too large, and wanted to see the building preserved historically. This resulted in a new concept of a smaller hotel with historic elements preserved. The town’s bylaws limit hotels to no more than 45 rooms, with an exception for historic buildings.

Last year voters approved an agreement between the developers and the town that would incrementally shave off a percent of property taxes on the building over a period of 15 years. The discount would begin the second year after the hotel is up and running, and would remain in effect no matter who owns the building, according to a copy of the agreement obtained from Town Hall. The developers agreed to conditions that include hiring local workers and businesses when possible.

The agreement said the town wants to support a project that brings the building to code and puts it back on the tax rolls.

The building is named for Edward Francis Searles, the school’s benefactor. Searles collaborated on the design with Boston-based architect Henry Vaughan, who designed the Washington National Cathedral.

In 1968, high school students began attending the new regional high school; in 2006, elementary and middle schoolers went to the new buildings next to it off Route 7.

The former Housatonic Elementary School has met with a similar fate after its students were moved out. The town still owns the historic building, and it is deteriorating fast as the town searches for a developer to take it on.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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