Our Opinion: Local mall has potential, but time is of essence

When it was constructed in 1988, county residents hailed the Berkshire Mall as an engine that would boost the economy of its hometown of Lanesborough as well as that of the Berkshires in general. It was designed to be a commercial mecca attracting shoppers from three states to its myriad shops, movie theaters and major national anchor retailers. At the time, the idea made sense, but then factors beyond local control began placing the mall's continuing success in jeopardy. Unfortunate timing, for example, caused the Berkshire Mall to be completed just as major employer GE began scaling back its Pittsfield operations, dealing a major blow to the area's purchasing power. More recently, the "retail apocalypse" brought on by the internet's transforming of traditional American buying habits away from brick-and-mortar stores has left the former retail powerhouse on virtual life support.

Back in the heyday of American malls, the philosophy behind the concept of creating a critical mass of retail options in one location, enhanced by eating and entertainment venues, made them de facto community centers and hives of activity. Unfortunately, that same formula for success provided the seeds for their downfall: as the economy struggled and shops began to close, the diminished shopper traffic created its own self-perpetuating cycle of decline.

Currently, the Berkshire Mall is owned by businessman Michael Kohan, which bought the 89-acre site in September 2016 for $3.5 million. Along with the purchase came hope for the resurrection of the ailing facility. Unfortunately, little has been done since to stem the hemorrhaging of businesses large and small, leaving the mall less than 50 percent occupied and having lost most of its anchor retailers with the exception of Target, which owns its own building attached to the mall's north end. As testimony to the difficulty in which the mall currently finds itself, Mr. Kohan has been notified that he has until June 18 to come up with nearly $1 million in back taxes owed to the town of Lanesborough and to the Baker Hill Road District, which was created to maintain the "Mall Road" connecting the property to major surrounding arteries.

Under Mr. Kohan's ownership, the mall has continued to decline with the exception of adding some new businesses like a local professional wrestling operation and a recently announced consignment emporium — but at present, the moribund complex is characterized by a disappointing lack of forward progress. Accordingly, Lanesborough and the Road District pursued legal action to force the payment of the back taxes or enable the latter to take possession of the mall. Both authorities have even gone to the trouble of obtaining legislation from Beacon Hill authorizing the Road District to expand its mandate from road maintenance to mall ownership, should that avenue become open.

No one knows what if anything Mr. Kohan has in mind for his property, but it is clear that local authorities possess the preponderance of enthusiasm for resuscitating it. Under their aegis, innovative ideas like a hotel/convention center complex, a marijuana grow facility, affordable and elderly housing, an entertainment complex and other options would be welcomed and considered.

Ultimately, after examining Mr. Kohan's record to date, it would not be a tragedy if he were to fail to come up with the taxes he owes. The mall's physical infrastructure is impressive, and with the right kind of imagination there is a possibility of returning it to viability. The mall, regardless of its ultimate function, is too much of an asset to the region to be allowed to deteriorate further.


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