Our Opinion: Eagle Mill project has real potential

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For at least a decade, the town of Lee has dreamed of redeveloping its Eagle Mill site. As is the case with so many historic towns with obsolescent infrastructures constructed during a more prosperous era, the ambitious project that sought to convert a disused building into mixed-income housing ran aground on a relatively mundane but expensive-to-fix detail: adequate water supply.

Lead developer Jeffrey Cohen had a vision for the old paper mill, and six years ago he and his design team began working and re-working his plan to convert it into 80 units of market-rate and affordable rental housing. Mr. Cohen's plan presumably sought to exploit the growing trend of city dwellers gravitating toward the laid-back lifestyle of rural areas while simultaneously seeking the proximity of vibrant downtown life, but also to provide much-needed living spaces for lower-income residents who find themselves strapped by the disparity between Berkshires wages and the relatively high local cost of living.

On Thursday, the townspeople of Lee and three other Berkshires municipalities learned at the ground level how state policy gets translated into action, and how the system can work when all the stars are in alignment (Eagle, Oct. 19). Thanks to the MassWorks Infrastructure Program, a state initiative specifically designed to prime the pump for small-town projects that will generate private investment, Lee's long-stalled project can finally move forward. Specifically, MassWorks has awarded a $4.9-million grant to Lee to upgrade outdated water lines between the mill site and the municipal water treatment plant, which in addition to accommodating the needs of the building's future residents will also improve water delivery to the downtown area for fire protection.

As is usually the case with the announcement of good news to local residents, a variety of elected officials showed up to take credit for "sealing the deal," as Lee Select Board Chairman Patricia Carlino put it. In this case, all involved fully deserve to bask in the bipartisan glory. Aside from state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and state Sen. Adam Hinds, who were instrumental in obtaining the grant, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito ventured all the way out from Boston to make sure that she and her boss, Gov. Charlie Baker, received their rightful share of the glory.

The towns of Sheffield, Monterey and Tolland snagged their own smaller pieces of the pie for infrastructure improvements. While such narrow-bore, targeted projects make a huge difference in correspondingly small communities, the Lee grant in particular demonstrates that what amounts to a relatively paltry sum to a state with a $41.2-billion overall operating budget can jump-start $60 million to $70 million in private investment — an amount that will materially change Lee's character and livability for the better.

A few more bureaucratic speed bumps remain before the redevelopment can take wing, but with government already showing a willingness to support the project, it would be counterproductive at this point to throw arbitrary impediments in its way. The state does have a responsibility, however, to maintain close oversight on the project and make sure that Mr. Cohen fulfills his part of the arrangement in a timely manner now that taxpayer dollars are on the table. Should the Eagle Mill conversion prove to be a commercial success, it will stand as a model and incentive for more such initiatives in a region that badly needs them.


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