Financial boost gives plans for Eagle Mill complex 'credibility and capability'

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LEE — Amid the scent of mold and decay, with each step inside is the crunch of debris from a decaying old mill building that, for more than a century, was the heart and soul of this town.

But doing the walking through the vast peeling, leaking spaces is a man in a navy blue suit who just helped make it possible for the historic Eagle Mill complex to get a makeover that will cherish its history and prepare the town for the future.

"I'm fully in on this," U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said at the mill Tuesday for an announcement of $400,000 in tax credits from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to the mill complex's developer, Eagle Mill Redevelopment LLC.

Neal joined local officials and state lawmakers Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, in marveling at the force of sheer will that has made a dream of this mill overhaul approach reality.

"Historic tax credits only work if you've got a good project," Neal later said in response to a question about the competitiveness of the state's program through the commission, which is chaired by Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.

The proposed $60 million project steadily has received reinforcement with public money for the repurposing of three buildings for 80 units of affordable and market-rate housing, a marketplace and a commercial space that could rival Faneuil Hall, developer Jeffrey Cohen has said. A hotel also is in the works but will be off the mill site.

Eagle Mill is eligible for a total of $6 million of these same state historic tax credits, for which Cohen has said he would apply for that maximum in several more rounds.

In May, the project received $6 million in federal historic tax credits from the National Park Service.

Another crucial boost came last fall, when MassWorks awarded the town a $4.9 million grant to replace 2 miles of water mains from the town's treatment plant to the mill.

Cohen told The Eagle that all these credits and confidence in the project will unlock more money, and that now "the next step is the banks," ahead of what is hoped will be a 2020 construction start.

"The world changed last week," Cohen told those gathered. "The $400,000 gives us credibility and capability."

He said Neal made it happen by promoting the project "at the level of the secretary of state," who has a $50 million annual budget that developers are lined up and clamoring for.

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Cohen also said that Pignatelli has been a solid advocate and supporter since the idea germinated.

Pignatelli said this is a crucial redevelopment in what is the "real gateway to the Berkshires," and that the project appears solid. "This one has legs."

For perspective, Neal described just how hard tax credits are to come by, and the political deftness needed to salvage such programs in Washington.

"Tax work is complicated," Neal said, and especially when housing is involved.

Hinds praised the "sweat equity" of Cohen and his team, including Director of Development Leigh Davis, who gave Neal a tour of a building after the announcement. Hinds said it is no small matter that the renaissance of the area is in walking distance to downtown Lee.

Later, Lee Select Board Chairman Thomas Wickham said the town is overwhelmingly supportive of the project, one that he thinks will "move the town into the future."

Cohen said he doesn't see any hiccups with the over $1 million in environmental cleanup, and hopes that this will be done within a year.

He also said he isn't sure who will develop the hotel, but he continues to explore it with a consulting firm, and will embark on a feasibility study. He said the hotel might have 85 to 125 rooms.

When asked what it was about this project that turned the head of Galvin, Neal said it was a glowing combination of support from the town, Pignatelli, Hinds, as well as the developer's "good reputation."

"In the end, you can have all kinds of proposals, but the numbers have to work," he said, noting that the project went under a "magnifying glass."

It also doesn't hurt that the Housatonic River flows next to it, Neal added.

"This is picturesque," he said. "The geography — that also plays into it."

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


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