State deems Great Barrington downtown a cultural district

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Downtown Great Barrington became the state's 45th Cultural District on Monday during a ceremony at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center marking the new title.

Being a state-sanctioned cultural district opens Great Barrington up to new services and revenue to improve and attract people to the town's collection of dining, entertainment, retail and artisan establishments.

Efforts to gain access to the new list of treats from the state will be headed by the Cultural District Steering Committee and co-chairwomen Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, and Karin Watkins, Mahaiwe's finance and administration officer.

"This community has a unique character and that makes for a unique culture and contribution to Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and the United States," said Mahaiwe Executive Director Beryl Jolly.

So far, the town's cultural district plans include marketing and communication through new signs, a tourism brochure and a shared cultural events calendar.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said getting the cultural district designation should provide a boost to the local business community. Arts and entertainment are one of the area's biggest attractions and its third most populated industry is retail sales, accounting for 7,700 jobs in the county.

"Arts and culture are so critical for this county," said Hinds, who spoke at the celebration. "This contributes to the economy, but it's also simply who we are."

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who also made remarks at the event, said Great Barrington has changed a lot since he was a kid and the only times he'd go into town were to buy new clothes with his parents or play baseball.

Then things started to change, leaning toward arts and culture with the establishment of the Triplex Cinema in 1995. Then came the Mahaiwe, Pignatelli said.

"The restaurants, shops, businesses and now St. James Place came along, too," he said. "I want to say congratulations to Great Barrington. You put Berkshire County, and Great Barrington in particular, on the map. This is the Northampton of the Berkshires."

Among the perks for which Great Barrington's Cultural District can now apply are abandoned building renovation tax credits, economic incentives, planning assistance, grants, historic preservation help, signs and tourism promotion. The district also can accept donations.

Other Berkshire County communities with cultural districts are North Adams, Pittsfield and Williamstown.

Karin Watkins said the steering committee sees the cultural district as a "hub" for Southern Berkshire County's arts and entertainment community with information on how people can not only enjoy Great Barrington, but the surrounding towns as well.

"There is so much to offer here," she said.

For now, the Steering Committee will post updates and information about the cultural district to its new Facebook page: Downtown Great Barrington Cultural District.

"This will highlight the incredible institutions we have here and raise the profile of Great Barrington in South County and beyond," said Select Board Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams. "I'm looking forward to where we're going on this and where the Steering Committee will take us."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621.

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