State Senate OKs legislation allowing Baker Hill Road District to buy Berkshire Mall
LANESBOROUGH — Potential public ownership of the struggling Berkshire Mall is nearing final approval on Beacon Hill.
The full Senate on Thursday morning endorsed special legislation giving the Baker Hill Road District the legal right to buy the mall.
If the House of Representatives gives its final OK and Gov. Charlie Baker signs the bill, it takes effect immediately.
"This gives the district a larger role in the mall's future. We need to move quickly given the difficulties the mall has faced," Berkshire state Sen. Adam Hinds said in a phone interview from his Statehouse office in Boston.
State Rep. John Barrett III expects a vote quickly given the House fully debated the measure last year.
"I'm a firm believer the only one to make the mall successful is [the district,]" said the North Adams Democrat.
The county's largest enclosed retail complex has fallen on tough times in recent years, with the occupancy rate dropping below 50 percent, and losing such retail giants as Sears, J. C. Penny, Macy's and Best Buy.
The current owner since September 2016, Mike Kohan, principal of Berkshire Mall realty Holdings LLC, also owes a total of $770,000 in back taxes. The breakdown municipal officials say is $337,000 to the town and $433,000 to the district, both for the current fiscal year that began July 1.
In addition, the mall has had electricity service issues since mid-January when two power failures a month apart darkened the majority of the building for unexplained reasons.
District and town officials are eager to see the mall redeveloped to the benefit of Lanesborough making it a viable destination when it opened 30 years ago.
"Once we get the authority, it gives us certainty to do something about [the mall,]" said Baker Hill attorney Mark Siegars
"We can't sit back and let things unfold," added Town Manager Paul Sieloff.
Sieloff and Siegars commented Monday during the Select Board's regular meeting.
The Baker Hill Road District was created by state legislation in 1989, two years after the mall opened, to build and maintain the road that leads to the mall from routes 7 and 8 as a public way. That task is currently the district's sole legal obligation.
The bonds that were floated to form the district in 1988 absolve the town of any legal responsibility to maintain the mall road. Under the legislation amending the road district, the district — not the town— would be financially responsible for owning the mall.
Redeveloping the mall is a high priority for taxpayers as well as town officials. A recently released survey found 74 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed the mall's future was key to boosting Lanesborough's economy.
"It's important it be a job producer — that's a number one priority," Barrett said.
The type of employment could depend on the result of a $70,000 study to research ways other struggling malls across the country breathed new life into the shopping centers.
Funded by a state grant and $20,000 from the Baker Hill Road District, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission staff will spend the next 18 months identifying possible new uses for the mall — whether publicly or privately owned. The BRPC will also examine relevant zoning and other regulatory changes necessary for new uses, as well as evaluate existing physical and infrastructure conditions that could impact the mall's redevelopment.
"I hope the district will develop an aggressive plan to position the complex as a regional revenue generator and host for thriving businesses." said Hinds.
Dick Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com and 413-496-6233
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