In downtown Lenox, looking for a safe way forward

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LENOX — Starved for revenue as they confront a crippled season for tourism this summer, restaurateurs, retailers and innkeepers are brainstorming solutions to rescue their businesses while the coronavirus pandemic slowly subsides.

During teleconferences hosted by the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, discussion focused on creation of a downtown outdoor dining and shopping plaza using streets and parking lots.

That idea — it already is proposed in Boston; Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine; and Tampa, Fla., as well as numerous other tourist-oriented destinations — would be especially helpful to restaurant owners who must limit their capacity once Gov. Charlie Baker's phase two reopening plan takes effect, likely in mid-June.

"Having people inside the restaurant, I don't see that happening in a safe way," said Molly Lyon, owner of Frankie's Ristorante and the forthcoming Boema pizzeria next door. "It's our employees who would be sitting ducks."

"We're expecting to go strong with more takeout services and curbside pickups," she said. "That's one way we've had to adapt and change; we've got our system down and it's working, with contactless payment and nobody allowed in the restaurant." Dining on the premises will be limited to the Main Street eatery's open-air porch.

"The plan is to come up with a set of proposals the town can enact, within the governor's guidelines, including easier use of public space, whether in or on sidewalks and streets," said Whitney Asher, president of the chamber and owner of the Brava restaurant and wine bar.

Asher and Lyon are among nine members appointed by Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen to the Town Reopening Advisory Committee.

"The permit process for any kind of use outside would have to be made significantly easier," Asher said.

"For restaurants that don't have a porch like we do, that's where the town's public spaces could be really helpful," Lyon said.

The Scoop, a popular "sweets cafe" and ice cream parlor, is offering takeout and has set up spaced-out picnic tables in the back, owner Jennifer Nacht said.

Nacht, executive director of the chamber, plans no indoor service this summer.

"I want to protect my employees," she said.

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Alta co-owner Aurelien Telle expressed hope that the town will ease restrictions so customers can dine outdoors at sidewalk tables as well as on the restaurant's open porch.

"Since we can only have limited capacity inside, it would be great to have more space outside to accommodate customers," he said.

There is great uncertainty about how many visitors the town can attract, he added.

"It's completely brand new for all of us; we've never lived through the summer with Tanglewood and all the other cultural institutions closed, so we really don't know what to expect," Telle said.

Nacht predicted that Lenox would see primarily second-home owners and guests at rentals that might be booked, especially after Airbnb can resume handling reservations from home-sharing hosts. She suggested that the restaurants that normally rely on tourists in the summer might cater to area residents, with help from the chamber in developing a marketing plan.

Several longtime downtown shopkeepers plan a cautious reopening to augment their internet and curbside sales efforts when retailers get a green light from the state for in-store customers.

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Randy Austin, longtime owner of the Gifted Child in Lenox and Great Barrington, emphasized that "I don't want to put my staff in any jeopardy whatsoever. Most people seem to be taking very good precautions, but certainly not everybody."

"For most small-business owners, our people are like our family," Nacht agreed.

She urged retailers to consider displaying some of their wares outdoors, on portions of downtown streets, if that's the strategy adopted by the town, and extending their hours to attract diners after their meals.

"Keeping them busy in town is a built-in little business boom, hopefully, in the evenings," Nacht said.

For the first time since it opened 35 years ago, Hoadley Gallery is staying closed this summer, out of an abundance of caution, according to co-owner Tom Hoadley, to protect employees and its older customer base.

But, Cassandra Sohn of Sohn Fine Art said she plans to reopen whenever the state enters phase two — June 8 at the earliest — and will extend hours "to maybe create a bit of an evening culture that perhaps could carry on beyond this year."

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Closing a portion of Church Street, the historic village's dining and shopping mecca, is supported by some, but not all, merchants.

Lynne West, owner of the Glad Rags boutique for nearly 50 years, pointed out that many of her customers want to park near the store.

"If they have to park two blocks away, they're not going to be happy," she said. "I've always thought closing the street was a detriment to my business."

The case for closing, according to Asher, is for "people to expand their business footprint outside into privately owned land, on the sidewalks and into parking spaces and even into the street to allow more space for commerce, for customers."

With nearly all cultural attractions closed for the summer, innkeepers confront an especially bleak season, swamped by cancellations since Tanglewood, on May 15, canceled its festival.

If his planned online auction this month fails to attract a reasonable bid, Gateways Inn co-owner Eiran Gazit might reopen in July. If so, he predicts only 30 percent capacity instead of the typical 90 percent in summer.

Garden Gables Inn owner Wendy Vittori noted that her usual guests are reluctant to travel, out of concerns for their health.

"From what I've seen, our occupancy will be far less than 30 percent when all is said and done," she said. "We're well over $100,000 in cancellations this year."

With cultural attractions mostly closed, "we need to tout what's available for people in the outdoors," said chamber Vice President Jeff Konowitch.

At the Rookwood Inn, Amy Lindner-Lesser, the owner since 1996, has returned over $40,000 in room reservations in recent weeks.

"My older guests are not looking for walks, hikes or nature," she said. "I'd love to see if there's a way to do a lawn concert with physical distance."

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


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