Mothballed Berkshires recreation area to rise again

State to reopen Windsor State Forest park area, once power restored

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WINDSOR — The lights already had gone out at a popular scenic destination here when the double whammy came. The popular Windsor State Forest was closed in 2009 to save the state money.

After a decade offline, the forest's recreation area will reopen this year, the state says, first to day use. Overnight camping might return later.

When the commissioner of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation announced in May 2009 that the Windsor site would be shuttered due to budget cuts, he was asked when it might be back.

"I don't think it'll be fiscal 2010," Richard K. Sullivan Jr. told The Eagle.

Turns out, it was a decade.

Olivia K. Dorrance, a spokeswoman for the DCR, says the state will invest $1.2 million to make a slew of capital improvements at the River Road site, located along a fast-moving section of the Westfield River not far from the Hampshire County towns of Cummington and Plainfield.

Work at the remote area, long popular with local families, is expected to start in April and be complete by late summer or fall. The site will open as soon as work is finished, Dorrance said.

"All the towns here are very excited about it," said Doug McNally, a member of the Windsor Select Board. "That was where you often went."

In addition to a big state investment, authorized by Gov. Charlie Baker, power lines to the state forest's public buildings must be restored after being lost in the wake of an ice storm, McNally said. After the park closed, there was no need for service after the storm brought down lines throughout the utility's coverage area. One such storm, in December 2008, did extensive damage.

The town and state have been consulting with Eversource on the need to restore service, as well as to negotiate the possibility of bringing service to a cluster of homes that are off the grid, McNally said.

He said current power lines end at Windago Road in Windsor and electricity is not now available on the section of River Road bordering the park. The cost of reaching several homes not served by Eversource would be met partly by homeowners, McNally said. Some property owners are paying for battery storage and might consider swapping that expense for an investment in utility poles.

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"We're talking, hopefully to help them out with that," McNally said of homeowners.

The restoration of power and an ongoing effort to bring high-speed broadband internet service to addresses in the area are being aided by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, according to the DCR. Windsor is poised to begin construction of a town-owned fiber-optic network.

Getting the park area open again goes beyond bringing back electricity — or unlocking a gate.

Work will include restoring a riverside beach, upgrades to the area's bathrooms and other public buildings, fresh pavement, accessibility improvements and new guardrails along River Road and over the bridge that provides access into the area.

Some of the coming construction will lighten the impact of use on the environment. By rebuilding the parking lot, the DCR will seek to reduce stormwater runoff into the Westfield River, a prized cold-water fishery that carries a federal designation as a wild and scenic river. Similarly, new landscaping will seek to channel and filter water before it reaches the river.

For years, the place has sat untouched, an unopened time capsule. On a recent visit, a reporter for The Eagle found a pay phone still hanging near the bathrooms. The line was dead.

Once the park reopens, local officials believe, traffic to and from the day-use area on River Road will bring back a small but real economic stimulus lost when the DCR mothballed the place.

"It was a bit of commercial help," McNally said of the park's draw.

When closed in 2009, the site was one of two state-funded parks in the Berkshires to be affected as the agency moved to cut 15 percent of its workforce in the wake of the Great Recession. That forced the DCR to lay off 330 workers, it said at the time.

Since then, the agency has struggled to operate its facilities in the region due to austerity, a report in The Eagle revealed in 2016. But, recent grants have enabled the DCR to improve trails.

Berry Pond, near Pittsfield State Forest, did not open for public swimming in summer 2009. The DCR commissioner said that year that staff cuts left the agency unable to provide lifeguards for both Berry Pond or the beach on the Westfield River within the Windsor State Forest.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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