'Let the Berkshires be your backyard': Plan aims to raise region's profile as an outdoor recreation destination
Lovers of outdoor recreation in Berkshire County assembled Thursday to advance a new plan that seeks to expand and promote the region's attractions.
They met through a webinar hosted by Mill Town Capital, the Pittsfield investment group.
Mill Town's managing director, Carrie Holland, said the Zoom call originally was planned as a large community gathering at Bousquet Ski Area, recently purchased by Mill Town.
But, with the coronavirus pandemic halting in-person events, a virtual news conference was held that featured Holland, along with Laura Brennan and Mark Maloy of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, among others.
"The plan is the first of its kind for Berkshire County," said Brennan, who co-wrote the document with Maloy. "When we began discussion with Mill Town on what this could entail, we wanted to be sure that it was regionwide and encompassed as many activities as possible. The idea behind a lot of this is to connect those user groups that are already engaged, and do a better job of communicating."
The goal, she said, is to raise the region's profile as an outdoor recreation destination, aiding the local economy's travel sector.
"In the long term, we see the cultural economy and the outdoor economy being super complementary," Holland said. "I think a family coming to go to Tanglewood or The Clark [Art Institute] may have kids who want to ride a pump track or rent a kayak. A lot of visitors are looking for diversity in their location. It's not just a one-note type of thematic trip."
Also taking part were Lindsey Schmid from 1Berkshire; Jeff Squire of the Western Massachusetts Climbing Coalition; Mackenzie Greer of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council; and Jim McGrath from the city of Pittsfield.
The collaboration between Mill Town and the planning commission involved a survey of full- and part-time residents, business owners, stakeholders and tourists to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the county's outdoor assets.
Schmid said her group, 1Berkshire, already has stepped up its attention to recreation.
"We've definitely seen a pivot in our marketing over the past three to five years with 'How do we attract people here and get them to think of it as a year-round destination?' " Schmid said. " 'How do we start attracting younger people to live here,' and with that pivot, starting to look at outdoor recreation as an underlying reason why people come to the Berkshires?"
The motto coming out of this collaboration in the time of COVID-19, Schmid said, is "Let the Berkshires be your backyard."
"People really want to feel safe, but they want to have fun and feel a bit of an escape," she said.
Greer, representing the resources council, shared information on the High Road project. Its goal is to create a trail that connects the entire county. Bousquet, and the Mahanna Cobble Trail, are the first stage of that effort.
"It's a project that is built on partnerships. Almost 40 percent of our land area is conserved, and there is a tremendous amount of trail network within that," Greer said. "What we're really looking to do is to connect those conservation areas and trail systems more directly with our downtowns."
Greer said the idea is to create town-to-town walks, noting that they are common in Europe. But, that will take time, she said — up to five years to develop trail segments in north and south county.
Squires and McGrath spoke of current projects already benefiting from the plan. Squires said the hope is for a large climbing project at Hanging Mountain in Sandisfield to open around Labor Day.
McGrath detailed plans to connect the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail from its current terminus at the Berkshire Mall to Crane Avenue in Pittsfield.
The city also has been working with Mill Town and the community group Greenagers to address the issues within Springside Park. The focus is on improving the trail network there and restoring the Springside House to serve as a hub for visitors.
Holland said that on the weekend of Oct. 2, Mill Town plans to host an outdoor recreation festival at Hancock Shaker Village.
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @WalshWrites on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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