Clarence Fanto: Some construction projects laboring to find workers

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This column has been modified to correct the name of the company that owns Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort.

LENOX — Three major hospitality industry projects in the Lenox-Stockbridge area are on the runway. But only one of them has what amounts to an all-clear, ready for takeoff.

Aiming at supersonic-speed construction for its $60 million renovation and expansion project is the Miraval Group's reinvention of Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort into a high-end health and wellness destination property.

As reported this past week, officials of Hyatt Hotels, the owner of the historic 380-acre site since January 2017, expect the eight new buildings, expanded parking lots and related amenities to be completed by June 1.

It's a bold, very aggressive timetable requiring favorable weather late into November and early December. But it's Hyatt, so it's wise to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Rising construction costs contributed to a nearly one-year delay in the major portion of the project, but the goal post remains unaltered. Meanwhile, about 45 full-time employees are being furloughed as of Oct. 27, and many hope to regain either their current or new positions by next summer.

Two other significant but less-massive projects remain on the tarmac.

The Travaasa Experiential Resort at Elm Court in Stockbridge, adjacent to the Lenox town line, awaits a go-ahead. Travaasa President Adam Hawthorne emailed me this past week to say there's nothing new to report.

The $50 million investment, long delayed by permitting requirements in both towns and a prolonged Land Court case finally resolved in favor of the developer, requires an upfront $4 million extension and improvement of sewer and waterlines along Old Stockbridge Road in Lenox, along with a sidewalk on the west side of the roadway.

Still to be firmed up is the timetable for transforming the now-demolished Magnuson Hotel off Routes 7 and 20 in Lenox into an upscale Marriott-branded Element by Westin. A major environmental cleanup on the property has been completed as part of the $22 million project.

BBL Hospitality, the Albany, N.Y.-based majority owner of the 130 Pittsfield Road site, calls the location "a great opportunity for us to bring a unique luxury hotel into the market."

In an emailed statement, BBL Senior Vice President Carrie Hillenbrandt said: "Our timing for moving ahead is dependent on the timing of other hotel construction projects we currently have underway." BBL Hospitality is working on three new hotels.

The company's portfolio includes 20 hotels, 11 of them in upstate New York, two banquet centers and 14 Recovery Sports Grill restaurants, nine in New York's Capital District.

"It's our belief that the Lenox market will continue to grow and strengthen, and we look forward to getting to work when the timing is right," Hillenbrandt said.

Major building projects in our region, including hotels, have been afflicted not only by rising building costs, but also by labor shortages in the construction industry, a national phenomenon.

A new industry survey released a few days ago confirms that U.S. construction companies are trying to cope with a widespread lack of qualified workers.

The report by the Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk, an engineering software company in San Rafael, Calif., finds that 2,040 of the 2,552 U.S. construction companies surveyed are having difficulty hiring construction workers.

"What was striking was how universal the difficulty was in filling craft positions," Ken Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America, said in a call with reporters.

Last year, the Northeast had more available workers, he pointed out. "Now they're saying no, our bench is empty."

Simonson said the construction industry is investing in more advertising and workforce training to attract builders and is seeking immigration reform that encourages skilled workers to be allowed legal entry to the U.S.

But with the national unemployment rate hovering just below 4 percent — that's virtually a full-employment level — the labor pool is drying up.

As Simonson explained in his media call, "You can't just call back someone who was laid off a few years ago." Potential workers need to understand that construction "isn't a dirty, dead-end career."

Several local hospitality industry officials, including Cranwell General Manager Vic Cappadona and Chevis Hosea, Hilton's top executive for construction and development, have confirmed that the labor shortage, combined with soaring costs of construction materials, have contributed to project delays and, in some instances, led to scale-downs described as "value engineering."

Some projects such as Tanglewood's $32 million year-round, four-building complex, have been humming along on or even ahead of schedule. After it opens next June, the new Tanglewood Learning Institute will attract additional patrons seeking nearby accommodations.

There will need to be "room at the inn" for the ever-expanding number of visitors attracted to the Berkshires for the region's scenic and recreational appeal, as well as its bountiful arts and entertainment offerings.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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