Is Great Barrington's farm-to-table idea field of dreams?

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GREAT BARRINGTON -- There's an ambitious plan to transform the recently purchased Great Barrington Fairgrounds into a model for farm-to-table initiatives, but the aspirations will be tested by financial realities.

Fairgrounds Realty LLC, consisting of Bart and Janet Elsbach of Sheffield, purchased the 57-acre site in December for $800,000.

Located along Route 7 near the town's south entrance, Bart Elsbach said he and others have had daily conversations to get the ball rolling on a grand vision that would put the property to agricultural use. There would also be recreational and educational projects, which could include a dog park, kids' camps and other projects.

But these ambitious plans have a price tag: $1.5 million.

"This endeavor represents so much bang for the buck," Bart Elsbach said. "There is so much positive influence that will come from this taking shape and taking off for a relatively small investment."

The couple and the all-volunteer nonprofit Fairgrounds Community Development Project are both on board with the $1.5 million plan that would cover a hand-over of the property and development. The couple plans on selling the land to the nonprofit once it raises enough funds. Multiple committees have been formed to designate uses for the land that would not overlap with what other nonprofits are doing, Elsbach said.

Elsbach envisioned the property transforming into a head-turning sight for drivers going along Route 7 that will be used for farming, an arboretum that grows indigenous and fruit-bearing trees, and other activities.

Elsbach has heard words of enthusiastic support from legislators and community stockholders, but what the project really needs is funding from public or private sources or grants.

"I feel like every quarter we have been met with an enthusiastic response, and I feel that's because different aspects are so timely people are recognizing more that communities in general are better off moving in a locally oriented direction," Elsbach said.

He said the acquisition was appropriately timed to explore farm-to-table food initiatives and other community-minded agricultural projects.

"I think we are ahead of the curve," he added.

Local school districts have been solicited about farm-to-school food initiatives. State Sen. Benjamin Downing and state Rep. William ‘Smitty' Pignatelli have both been told about the project, Elsbach said.

Great Barrington town officials have been also been solicited. Selectmen Vice Chairwoman Deborah Phillips described the Great Barrington Fairgrounds as a strategically located property with a "long positive history for Great Barrington."

"It's an amazing property for its ecological potential, and developing it as a community asset would be great for Great Barrington," Phillips said.

Phillips and other town officials are supportive of the project, she said, but there's no funding available from the town at this time.

Besides fundraising, there are other ways the community can support the project.

On April 27, Arbor Day, there will be a cleanup of the fairgrounds from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Elsbach said he's already begun spending time getting ride of invasive species.

Nancy Kalodner, of Monterey, who serves on the Fairgrounds Community Development Project board, said it's a worthwhile challenge to pursue.

"Isn't it often true that the greatest challenges are the ones that give the biggest benefits in the end?" she said.

Elsbach said there's buy-in to make this vision a reality.

"For the Earth to make a diamond, it takes hundreds of thousand of years. So for us to make it a gem, this might go on for 10 years," he said.

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata


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