The Berkshire Mall, which arrived to such fanfare, is now a ghost of its former self. Just as a critical mass of stores is necessary for a mall's success, going below that critical mass creates a snowball effect that hastens its decline. Whatever fate awaits the remaining stores, however, the shell of the mall and its massive parking lots will remain. And something must be done with them.
An Eagle Facebook post asking our readers what they think can be done with the mall has generated more than 300 responses. This attests to the Berkshire community's concern about the fate of the mall and the need to explore imaginative ways to reuse the facility when retail shopping has gravitated on line, and in recent years, to the downtowns that had lost stores to malls.
The town of Lanesborough, which is home to the mall and receives tax revenue from it, has received a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to finance a study by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) about future uses of the mall (Eagle, January 16). The Baker Hill Road District, which is working closely with the town and hopes to buy the retail facility, is contributing $20,000 to the study.
Laura Brennan, the senior planner for community and economic development for the BRPC, said there are eight to 10 scenarios that can be explored, and some have been done by malls elsewhere in the Northeast that are also confronting grim economic realities. Elderly and/or affordable housing is a possibility, although that populace is best served by a downtown location with ready access to stores and services. Indoor agriculture — perhaps the growing of medical and recreational marijuana — should certainly be explored.
The Hadley Mall has turned over a chunk of space to a go-kart track. Could the Berkshire Mall be used in a similar fashion, hosting drone races, for example? The millennials the county is always trying to figure out ways to keep and attract are arguably more interesting in doing things than in buying them, and could be attracted to a facility attuned to their needs.
Could the mall building be retrofitted to serve as a regional school in a county that because of declining enrollment and rising education costs must move more aggressively toward regionalization? Given the slow pace of structural reform in education this is a long-term option that wouldn't provide the relatively early gratification of other possibilities.
Whatever happens at the mall, of course, is contingent upon who owns it, which right now is Berkshire Mall Realty Holding LLC. Target, which owns its building attached to the mall and doesn't appear to be struggling to find customers, may not want to be linked to the mall in other incarnations. And what would become of the Regal Cinemas movie theaters at the mall, which underwent an extensive renovation recently?
While the Berkshire Mall struggles, Pittsfield must continue its efforts to serve residents of the city and neighboring towns who once shopped at the mall. There is a certain irony here as it was the opposition of a previous generation of downtown Pittsfield business owners to construction of a downtown mall — the kind of complex Burlington, Vermont enjoys — that led to the building of the Berkshire Mall. That shortsightedness quickly led to the decline of what had been a thriving North Street. In the wake of the mall's decline, Pittsfield now has an effort to build further upon the comeback of the last several years.
The Berkshire Mall is aptly named — it serves all of the Berkshires and the entire county is vested in its revival. We look forward to the BRPC study and input from any and all parties determined to find ways to ensure that the retail facility thrive in its next incarnation, whatever that may be.