Blantyre resort shuts down for year, but will reopen for event rentals

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LENOX — The historic Blantyre resort will be closed to individual guests until next May in response to the coronavirus pandemic and its severe impact on the leisure and business travel industry.

During the temporary shutdown, General Manager Stephen Benson told The Eagle, the 110-acre "luxury Country House" property at 16 Blantyre Road will be available for meetings, retreats, life celebrations and weddings after lodging restrictions are eased by Gov. Charlie Baker, anticipated in late June or early July.

Benson explained that the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recent cancellation of its Tanglewood live performance schedule extinguished the resort's last flicker of hope to salvage the summer season as reservations plummeted at a tremendous pace.

"Tanglewood is the cornerstone of our summer," he said. "All of us have been enduring this horrific pandemic, which has been crippling to business. We lost at least 50 percent of our group and transient bookings compared to 2019."

The staff of 70 to 80 employees has been laid off, Benson noted. "We've maintained contact with all of them, and they're completely supportive and understanding of the situation we're in," he said. "They're an exceptional core group who would certainly be open to returning if and when work is available."

Benson noted that "property buyouts" will be available after the state reopens the hospitality industry. In late March, just before the state mandate shutting down lodging was issued, Blantyre had invited anyone wanting to reserve the entire property for a single family or small group. The price tag: $38,000 a day, including meals, "wellness activity" and entertainment, attracted national media attention.

Now, he pointed out, the price is negotiable, with "much more reasonable weekly or monthly rates. It's all about trying to bring in some occupancy and since our guests really enjoy the town of Lenox, it would be a win-win for all."

Looming over Blantyre's future is anticipated action by the Zoning Board of Appeals on the special permit application filed last February for a $90 million expansion under the town's Estate Preservation Bylaw.

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If approved, the number of guest suites in the 1902 mansion and nearby cottages would nearly triple from 24 to 69, including 45 in a new building. A spa and separate three-level gallery and banquet hall would be added, along with construction of 20 units in four residential townhouses and the creation of 14 one-acre building lots for individual estate homes.

The ZBA held an initial hearing on March 6, but the continuation slated for March 20 was canceled as the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person municipal meetings at Town Hall.

Financing for the project was withdrawn at the end of March, the original deadline set by investors, Benson confirmed. The financing had included "some working capital to assist us in getting through the pandemic," he said.

Now, as then, zoning board approval is "critical to our survival," he said. "Land use approvals will improve valuations of the property. There's nothing on the radar that concerns us about [new] financing."

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Co-owner Linda Law and her company, Blantyre Hotel Ventures LLC, remain "absolutely committed to the project," Benson said. "We're very enthusiastic about it, and it would have a major economic impact on the community."

The phased redevelopment is expected to take 18 months, Law has predicted.

"We will also debut new dining venues and enhanced services," Benson noted.

The goal is "to become a global center of excellence for retreats, think tanks and conferences, including Fortune 500 companies, foundations, institutes, endowments, philanthropic endeavors and universities," the special permit application states.

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The redevelopment would double employment at the property to 160, and could yield more than $930,000 for the town in various one-time fees and permits. Also, it would add about $1 million a year in sales and occupancy tax revenues, with real estate taxes to be determined, according to the document submitted to the zoning board by attorney F. Sydney Smithers IV of Cain, Hibbard & Myers in Pittsfield.

"The entire hospitality industry has gone into a free-fall," Benson said. "But we're very optimistic and we're aggressively seeking investors who are very interested in Blantyre. Obviously, there's an element of frustration that we haven't been able to get our presentation to the ZBA. We're eager to present it, collaborate with the town and see this thing through; the benefits will be tremendous for everyone."

Noting Blantyre's 120-year history in the community, Benson declared that "we have no plans to sell it, but to continue to be good stewards of the property and community. We're eager to get the train back on the tracks and continue to move this thing forward. Everything about the future of Blantyre is being done very judiciously, carefully and thoughtfully so that we continue to be true to its roots."

Benson, who joined Blantyre last December after previous stints at American Cruise Lines, the St. Regis resort in Aspen, Colo., and the Four Seasons in Jackson, Wyo., said, "We want to develop this grand estate and make it current and relevant. Lots of other businesses are struggling through this period, but there's a wonderful sense of community here, everyone is working to help and support each other, and we truly want to remain good partners."

The town bylaw aimed at estate preservation allows redevelopment, preservation and protection of a qualifying property exceeding 25 acres, including a building, open space and associated settings.

"These Gilded Age manor houses are extraordinarily expensive to maintain as a result of the age of the structures, the age of the fixtures and equipment and the relatively small number of guest rooms, making financial viability and success especially difficult," the special permit application stated.

At a teleconference last week, its first meeting since early March, ZBA members voted 5-0 to hold teleconferences only on "less complicated matters" while topics such as the Blantyre application would be handled at Town Hall during the board's first in-person public meeting, potentially in mid- to late June.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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