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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: A workforce housing project in Great Barrington is a unique prototype to keep our eyes on

It’s a problem we hear from so many Berkshire business-owners: In communities that are heavy on service-sector jobs but light on housing that workers can afford, attracting a sustainable workforce is a tall order. Sticky problems like this one often require thinking outside the box to find workable solutions, which is why a unique housing project in Great Barrington has caught our eye.

The plan to convert the Windflower Inn into workforce-targeted residential units was certainly an exercise in outside-the-box thinking for its proponents.

Josh Irwin, a chef and farmer who owns Cantina 229 in New Marlborough, was racking his brain with fellow restaurateurs trying to figure out how eateries and other enterprises can proactively respond to widespread staffing issues with causes outside their kitchens and storefronts. He came up with the idea of purchasing the inn — cheaper than building anew — and reimagined the space as housing for workers either moving to town or already here and struggling to find any rental let alone one they can afford.

When he had trouble sealing a deal for the property, Construct Inc. stepped in as a partner. Construct closed on the inn Thursday for $1.4 million, and it should be ready for occupants by January. Construct’s executive director says a temporary, shared living concept built out of an existing space is a first for a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and creating affordable housing opportunities in South County communities that desperately need them.

Housing stock, or lack thereof, has proven a significant stumbling block for many Berkshire businesses seeking to expand, thrive or even just survive in a tight labor market. It’s great to see a focused and thoughtful team-up of community stakeholders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors make this happen. In addition to Irwin’s vision and Construct’s buy-in, the purchase funding was boosted by a grant from the town’s federal COVID relief money as well as several donors, including a $75,000 contribution from the Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick Foundation. The 3.25 interest rate from Greylock Federal Credit Union on the deal was made possible from federal pandemic relief funds to the bank.

That such stick-to-it-iveness and alignment of missions were required for this endeavor demonstrates the hurdles that many of our communities face in putting just a handful more units in play for working-class housing — even when community leaders prioritize it. Not all communities have the benefit of all these resources and stakeholders to put behind such a mission. Still, we are glad this one does, and that Great Barrington continues making smart investments to diversify the affordable housing stock of South County’s most populous municipality. More so, though, we are keen to see this proof of concept open its doors in January. With some luck, it could be a game-changer — not just for South County working-class residents and businesses but as a potential prototype for housing-minded stakeholders in other communities.

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