Shakespeare & Company seeks campus development partners

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LENOX — Shakespeare & Company is looking for one or more business partners to help develop underutilized and unusable parts of the sprawling campus, which includes at least five derelict structures condemned by the town and overdue for demolition.

The nationally recognized troupe has just sent out official Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to qualified potential applicants such as real estate or other business and property development firms or nonprofits. The intent is to offer ideas for a direct collaboration "with the goal of monetizing the property in a way that is advantageous to both the interested entity and the Company," according to a summary of the document.

The RFP specifies that "all prospective applicants must show experience with large-scale development projects."

While company leaders are open-minded about proposals, "We're not building a skyscraper in the middle of the campus," managing director Adam Davis joked during a conversation outside the Tina Packer Playhouse.

"We have to stay open-minded, otherwise we're narrowing the channel of opportunity," artistic director Allyn Burrows noted. "We're trying to gain some interest from smart people who make their lives creating things in environments, and that's what we're about and open to. We want to find what interest we shake out for action and for traction."

"This RFP doesn't mean we're asking for a lifeline from some conglomerate to come in and save us, save our hides and our souls," he asserted. "This can happen on several different levels," such as more than one entity coming in to acquire specific parcels.

But the nonprofit theater company will continue to be in the driver's seat regarding the future uses of the property beyond the troupe's stages and outdoor performance spaces, Burrows stated.

Shakespeare & Company, founded by actress and director Tina Packer 41 years ago at The Mount, home of the Edith Wharton Restoration, purchased its current property at 70 Kemble St. in 2000 for $4.1 million from the failed National Music Foundation. The site had been the home of the Bible Speaks religious cult (1976-87) and the Lenox School for Boys (1926-72). The current assessed value of the property — which includes 17 buildings on 33 acres — is $8,821,000, according to Town Hall records.

Gaining community support from voters and Town Hall boards for what could be a major development project is "something we have to navigate, and we're going into it with eyes wide open," Burrows said. "But we want to continue to be good neighbors, because that's what we're sensitive to and otherwise we're undermining our own intent. It means taking it once step at a time. We're having a ball, just talking about all this stuff."

As Burrows stressed, "if we were printing money down here, we would still be going forward with this plan. Adam and I have been talking about this for three years, from the moment I walked him around the property in a blizzard and we talked about the potential."

Some of the buildings that could have been resurrected 20 years ago are beyond redemption now, he said.

"Now we have to talk about what can be there in their place. It's really just about being a good steward of the property for the town. We want to be good neighbors, good partners with the town, and that means taking care of our stuff, and that's what we're trying to do."

The goal, Burrows said, is "the highest and best use of this property, and having derelict buildings falling in on themselves ... doesn't seem like a good approach. There's a fine line between wreckage and ruins, we have some wreckage on this property. But we don't want to run roughshod over the history of this place; we actually want to find out what we can do creatively."

"One of the things we're looking at is whether there's anything that can be saved, or if it can't be saved," Davis added.

Applicants will take a mandatory site visit on a choice of two dates next month, followed by a statement of interest and then a detailed proposal outlining how the campus "can be activated as a shared-use property that addresses the Company's ongoing mission and priorities, and maximizes the use of any available, undeveloped, and usable land, to enhance the ways in which Shakespeare & Company can further contribute to the region's growth," the request states.

A developer who submits a winning proposal could be selected during the week of March 9, 2020.

According to the document, the goal "is to more fully activate the campus into a thriving, year-round destination that serves multiple interests at the intersection of performance, education, and training detailed in the Company's recent strategic plan. as well as open the door to the creation of new revenue streams that will help sustain Company operations in the future."

Possible uses for the available acreage could include single-family home construction, as well as workforce housing, since the property is zoned for one-acre residential, or a hotel and restaurant, depending on applicants' interest and the feasibility of a collaborative project. The RFP does not pinpoint a specific use, but seeks a conversation to explore and envision what could happen on the land.

Although office, retail and industrial use is prohibited in one-acre residential zones, the company is exploring whether it could obtain a designation available for non-profits that include educational missions allowing for both residential and mixed-used development within a "smart growth" zoning district.

The "friendly" 40R designation, exempting the company from certain setback restrictions and density requirements, would increase the amount of land zoned for dense housing, and require the inclusion of affordable units in most private projects. The property's proximity to the historic town center, as well as to major roadways, potentially makes it a desirable candidate for 40R status, according to the RFP.

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Additional housing for theater staff may be one of the potential goals, since the company employs nearly 200 people during the course of the summer, and 30 year-round.

Burrows said that as a Shakespeare & Company board member 20 years ago, he had reservations about "the level of challenges" the site presented when it was acquired.

"I knew that it was a lot to undertake, but I also knew the location couldn't be beat," he said. He had weighed the challenges as well as the positives, which included a central Lenox location and "the price was right."

"This is a lot to take on," Burrows recalled advising board members, but for him the scales tipped in favor of the acquisition in order to extricate the theater company from what had turned into an unworkable collaboration with The Mount "that wasn't conducive to our operations."

The property — "a really raw space then," he said — originally included 64 acres, but the company has sold off three parcels over the years for $3.9 million, notably the Spring Lawn mansion that had hosted small-scale productions by the theater troupe.

Davis, the managing director who was hired in early 2017 from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, said the company is breaking even for the second straight fiscal year on an annual budget of $4.3 million, with total attendance to date down slightly from last year.

"For us to have this 33-acre property with our operations running at full steam, we feel there is an opportunity to at least explore conversations around what someone else might want to do" with acreage or square footage not in use by the theater company, Burrows said.

He pointed to the vacant and deteriorated St. Martin's Hall and the decrepit, unused Pool Building and additional areas of the property with potential for other "symbiotic operations" to function in a mutually beneficial collaboration.

Is Shakespeare & Company facing financial urgency to sustain its operations?

"We're a theater company," Burrows responded, "so you're always going to have cash flow challenges" in augmenting earnings from box office revenues with contributed income, unlike the Williamstown Theatre Festival, American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theater, "tucked under the wing of major universities."

But, he added, "we're on a firm footing now" in terms of operating the theater company.

Davis noted that he and Burrows, who was appointed artistic director three years ago, share a mission of "figuring out what to do about sustainability for this company." The troupe had a close call with financial insolvency 10 years ago.

"When we look at where we are as an organization now, this is the right time to be doing this," Davis said. "As we are trying to become a stronger, better, more active member of this community, we needed to find a way to make sure that we were using the assets we have that we are not being used to their best advantage."

Asked whether there's a preference to partner with for-profit or nonprofit entities, he replied: "It's our responsibility to find the best relationship we can to collaborate with, period."

Davis also emphasized the crucial role of the company's board, noting that the plan to seek proposals came from the property committee composed of board members, some of whom live in the community, as well as senior leadership.

The available acreage is scattered around the property, which attracts nearly 50,000 people a year. "We're a draw, thankfully now one of the economic drivers of the town, though not on the scale of Tanglewood," Burrows acknowledged. "But there was a day when people thought of us as freaks in pumpkin pants down the hill, and now they realize we're here to stay and we're one of the players."

"We want to continue to be a fixture in this community," Davis added, since the company, as a linchpin of the local and regional cultural economy, provides extensive educational programs for area schools and an intensive training institute for young professionals.

"It's about being proactive, flexible, forward-thinking, modern," Burrows said."We have to start thinking about how we are going to regenerate this whole community."

The company, which has invested more than $15 million in renovations and property upgrades over the past 20 years, has been working with 1Berkshire, the county's official economic development agency and tourism council, to secure a list of potential developers, said Davis, a board member of the agency.

"We have always embraced every opportunity to welcome as many people as possible to our campus," said founding artistic director Tina Packer in a statement. "Through this request process, we will be able to build a stronger and more vibrant community around our education, training and performance programs."

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


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