New and improved Lenox town beach more accessible for everyone after $313,000 renovation

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LENOX — On a clear, comfortable summer day, the town beach attracts a mix of residents and visitors, eager to soak up rays and dip into the refreshingly cool waters of Laurel Lake. Following a just-completed town project, the beach sports a new look.

The $313,000 renovation achieved multiple goals, primarily accessibility, said Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen.

In addition to a revamped beach house, a handicapped-accessible driveway, parking lot and "boardwalk" have been constructed.

"The project was designed to make the town beach accessible to everyone, especially people who are mobility-challenged," said Ketchen. "They will find it dramatically changed. For everyone else, it's a refreshed facility."

Four years in the making from design and engineering to completion this spring, funding was cobbled together from the taxpayer-supported Community Preservation Act ($169,290) approved by annual town meeting voters in May 2016 and from the capital improvement portion of the town budget ($100,000) as well as other sources.

The project included grading of the steeply sloping entrance to the beach, and new walkways were added to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

During a beach tour Monday, the town's Parks and Recreation and Community Center Director Kim Graham pointed out an improved and widened entrance driveway and two reserved parking spaces for handicapped drivers. There's also a sand-water wheelchair for public use.

A natural walkway was created at the top of the sandy beach area, also easily accessible for people in wheelchairs, she noted.

The beach house was totally renovated, maintaining its external structural integrity with some significant shoring-up. but gutting the interior and installing new flooring and revamped, accessible bathrooms and changing rooms, said former Selectman Channing Gibson, a leading Town Hall advocate for the project. "It's a really elegant, functional little structure," he said.

Gibson pointed out that the project included runoff and erosion control from the adjoining hillside that was starting to affect the beach.

Now, there's an expanded picnic area and attractive landscaping work is nearly completed. Another add-on for the project yielded improved stairs leading from the main parking lot to the shorefront.

Graham's interest in enhancing the beach for accessibility goes back 14 years, she recalled, when she met her husband, Tom, who had a special-needs daughter.

"We couldn't get down here with her," she said. "So I knew there was a need and I made it my mission before I leave. The town has been great, and so supportive."

Gibson, who grew up spending summers on a lake, said he has "real affection" for them.

"I thought this beach was such a wonderful aspect of the town, and I thought it could be a little bit better than it was," he said, "more up to the quality Lenox would like for its facilities, bringing more people to the town."

There are no residency restrictions, but camp groups and buses are banned.

"I want to get people down to this beach, to know it's part of the community, it's free and here for them to use," said Gibson, adding that he and his family are frequent beachgoers.

Gibson and Graham credited Tony Patella, who chairs the Community Preservation Committee and the Community Center Board, for helping push the project through.

Despite a regional and national shortage of lifeguards, Graham said an increase in hourly pay from around $13 to $17, and an expansion of the work week enabled her to hire five people for this summer.

"The increase in pay and hours certainly helped," she said.

The beach is now open for longer hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with lifeguards on duty from 10 until dusk, when they secure the beach house and lock the gates. The season runs from the last day of school in late June until Labor Day, although the beach is without lifeguards after Aug. 24, when the staff heads back to school.

"We try to keep people off the property after it's closed, as much as possible," said Gibson, adding that a video surveillance installation is under consideration. For off-season beachgoers, "no beach access" signs have been posted at the Cork 'n Hearth restaurant's private parking lot above the beach.

As an example of new community programs, the Lenox Council on Aging held a Beach Breakfast & Bingo event on Tuesday morning at the remodeled beach. Additional sessions may be added.

Starting July 22, the Lenox Community Center is offering a weekly Sunday morning "Sunrise Yoga on the Beach" series. The 8 a.m. gatherings through Aug. 26 are aimed at "stretching, strengthening and awakening your senses," according to an announcement from Town Hall, "in a supportive environment to greet the new day amidst the serenity and beauty of Laurel Lake."

Taught by Dolores Mannix of the Summit Center for Vibrant Living, based in downtown Lenox, the all-levels gentle flow classes uses "breath, calming poses blended with segments of simple, energizing strength building and meditation to explore and connect to our natural rhythms."

A late-season beach party with a DJ will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 21, including a bonfire with desserts provided by the Community Center to top off picnics brought by families.

"There's so much positive feedback from beachgoers this summer," Graham said.

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

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