Great Barrington is evolving. A wave of new residents, fleeing New York City during the pandemic, has filled the Berkshires and pumped new life and money into the town, defined by its boutique shopping district, artistic focus, quality restaurants, outdoor activities, and multiple recreational cannabis dispensaries that have opened in the past three years. Now that the migration is settling down a bit, community stakeholders are taking stock of the new economic landscape and looking to the future.
Storefront Musical Chairs“So much was the same for 25 years,” says Betsy Andrus, Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce Executive Director. “Now, along with the retailers and restaurants there’s art and clothing and all kinds of shops. It’s become much more diverse. It has been a huge game of musical chairs that’s really mixed things up and put stores in the right locations.”
Griffin, a popular clothing store that outgrew its original storefront has now moved to Church Street Trading Co.’s high-traffic location on Railroad Street. Griffin’s old spot is the perfect cozy corner for the new Familiar Trees bookstore. Artemesia moved from the top of Railroad Street into what was the old Chef’s Shop, which has a much better window for its clothing displays. Into the funky, cabin-like building where Artemesia was, Michael Wainwright USA is now selling its ceramics, tableware, glassware, art, and furniture.
More galleries seem to be popping up every day as well, like Bernay Fine Art, Carrie Chen Gallery, and Robert Lloyd Gallery, which is dedicated to antique barware and illustration art. This diversification of the business district has also spurred what Andrus calls, “a return to the arts.” The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center has been a stalwart anchor for the established arts district and continues to be the town’s creative heart, returning to live performances last August. Along with the Daniel Art Center at Simon’s Rock, the Mahaiwe has reopened its doors with public safety at the forefront of its mission, requiring masks and proof of vaccination.
“The most important thing we did was listen to our audience,” says Mahaiwe Executive Director Janis Martinson. “People are deeply grateful to be back in the theater. At first we were worried that people wouldn’t want to wait through all the COVID protocols, but they are really just happy that it allows them to be back in the presence of great art again.”
Last year also saw the inaugural Berkshire Busk festival, which brought thousands to town-wide, outdoor arts and music events over the course of 10 weeks. A 2022 sequel is in the works next summer.
Great Food with Fewer to Serve itRestaurants in town, like the Prairie Whale, Bizen, Cafe Adam, and Barrington Brewery, among others, have survived uncertain times by adapting to takeout menus and increased precautions. While these places have powered through the pandemic era with good business and lots of support, staffing shortages have been the problem for every establishment.
During the pandemic, Rubiner’s Cheesemongers and Grocers owner Matthew Rubiner closed the previously bustling cafe attached to the back of the specialty foods store. According to Rubiner, the changing protocols made consistent operations impossible. Now the staffing shortage is making it equally difficult to reopen. “We are working to reopen the cafe and we are not seeing a lot of applications,” Rubiner says. “Soon we will be ready to open but will still need a fully trained staff.”
Luckily, he says, the influx of affluent new residents has been great for the cheese shop.
“The rush of people moving up here has had a fairly profound impact on our business,” Rubiner says. “It’s very important to my business that Great Barrington develops in a way that supports my specific clientele. But there is a downside—taxes and housing—you worry if too much development will detract from the nature of the Berkshires that drew people here in the first place.”
One of the newest businesses drawn to town is Pixie Boulangerie, a European-style bakery that is selling out of its array of bread, pastries, and desserts on a daily basis. Swiss-born owner Patrizia Barbagallo moved from Westchester to Great Barrington during the pandemic. The former French teacher embraced her life-long love of baking and, so far, the risk has brought reward. “It was a little bold to not start out at farmers’ markets and just open a bakery,” Barbagallo says. “But I’m very happy with the location and we have been really blessed with the community.”
The bakery is the latest resident in the Flying Church, a multiuse venue inside a restored, and dramatically raised, historic church at the north end of Main Street. While it hasn’t yet filled its main 5,000-square-foot hall, Pixie Boulangerie and other small shops in the building are drawing visitors up to Great Barrington’s north end.
“The bakery is killing it,” says Paul Joffe, who owns the Flying Church and runs the coffee shop next door. “There’s a certain amount of uncertainty with everything, which makes it difficult to take a bet on opening a store or renovating a building. You don’t know what the next year will bring, but we are always optimistic.”
Pot Is the PlotWith everything that’s changed here, one cannot overlook the fact that Great Barrington has also developed into a destination as the Southern Massachusetts hub for recreational marijuana dispensaries. While New York rolls out its own legal cannabis infrastructure at a snail’s pace, Great Barrington is the closest place for Hudson Valley residents to purchase weed east of the border. There are now four dispensaries in town. The oldest and biggest player is Theory Wellness, which benefits from name recognition, multiple locations throughout the state, and corporate structure. The standalone independent shops have become increasingly creative in an attempt to stand out. Rebelle, south of the town center, has become as much a lifestyle brand as a dispensary, operating out of a building that looks more like a quaint Berkshire home than a store.
At Calyx, owner Donna Norman has tried to infuse her dispensary in the middle of Main Street with hometown charm, employing cafe-style chalkboard menus and a big bud mural by a local artist Joel Haynes. The effect is casual and disarming.
“Opening at the height of the pandemic was really scary. We were really mindful that we wanted to make customers feel safe and cared for,” says Norman. “Our goal is to do what we can to help and to be a big part of the community.”
Recently the ladies from “The Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip,” filmed a segment in Calyx that will air later this year. While Norman says the experience and exposure was fun and exciting, it was also very meaningful to have such a well-known show not just promote her shop but also normalize recreational cannabis on a national platform.
Up the road, the newest player in town, Farnsworth Fine Cannabis, is run by brothers Alexander and Brayden Farnsworth, fashion and design industry professionals. They conceived their store with luxury in mind and vintage design elements that evoke the visual language of their great, great uncle, Philo Farnsworth. In the 1920s, the elder Farnsworth invented key components of the first electric tube television and crafted many of the designs that defined the look of radios and TVs in the early and mid 20th century.
The dispensary showroom is a kaleidoscopic arcade of miniature archways, framing shelf after shelf of product, paraphernalia, and antique Farnsworth ephemera.
“Because a lot of cannabis products are quite small, the arches gave us a frame but also a focus. You are in an inverted square coliseum,” says Alexander Farnsworth of their design intent. “The majority of the customers get it. Some people say it’s the nicest store they’ve been into in their entire lives. Some say it’s intimidating. Our prices are similar to everywhere else. We just look the most expensive.”
Great Barrington’s growing business district, historic charm, and bucolic countryside proved to be a major draw for New Yorkers evacuating the city during the height of the pandemic, especially those with young families.
Real estate agents were bombarded with requests and houses sold the same day they went on the market, for amounts well above pre-pandemic rates. Tim Lovett of Berkshire Property Agents says that the run on housing was “epic” and was driven mostly by couples in their 30s, with kids, who can now work remotely.
Average residential sale price in 2020 rose 24 percent compared to 2019, and rose an additional 20 percent in 2021, according to the most recent Berkshire Realtors’ Berkshire Market Watch Report (based on third quarter figures). This is the highest percentage increase ever reported in the region and has been encouraging to stakeholders looking to grow the community and school district. “There’s a new energy and a new population that I don’t think will go back, thanks in large part to remote working,” Lovett says. “It’s a sea change. This migration has been a rejuvenation of the brand of the Berkshires.”
But rising tides don’t raise sinking ships, and increased housing costs have created a crisis, according to Brad Gordon, Executive Director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, which works to help address housing issues across the county, helping with landlord disputes, rent inflation, low income housing development and a myriad of other issues.
“Back in the recession a lot of people went from home owners to renters across the county. New market economics caused rent prices to rise,” Gordon says, adding that around Great Barrington second home ownership and the COVID migration has taken a huge bite out of what little affordable inventory existed. Stimulus programs to freeze evictions and foreclosures have kept families in their homes for now, but Gordon expects to see homeless numbers rise dramatically later this year as those stopgaps expire.
“People can’t afford to live in the community they work in. I cannot think of any issue that will be more economically stifling than that.” Gordon says. “There needs to be a laser-like focus on this. It is an emergency situation. There is a direct relationship between price increases and homelessness. But it’s not just homelessness. Chronic housing instability is incredibly destabilizing for families. We need to get upstream of these problems.”
The good news, Gordon says, is that for the first time, this issue is on the front of everyone’s minds. There is support countywide for increasing housing inventory across multiple price points utilizing new construction, reuse, and zoning reform.
“‘Affordable housing,’ as a phrase, is loaded,” he says. “What we are really talking about is decent housing relative to your income. People hear affordable housing and they think people are coming in to their community from the outside—which itself shouldn’t be problematic—but it’s actually giving people a place to live who work here and were raised here.”
In addition to nonprofits that help folks with housing directly Great Barrington is home to a number of active nonprofits that make daily positive impact.
The Berkshire Community Action Council, based in Great Barrington, helps residents with fuel costs, which are way up this winter. They provide children free jackets and boots and run public classes on finances, and other community safety net programs.
The Railroad Street Youth Project is another organization where young people plan and execute their own community programs, with adult staff only serving to administrate and procure funding. “The community has been supportive through the pandemic and the students have done great work to support each other,” said RSYP Director of Development Tiffany Riva. “Our model is unique and the youth leadership are invested. I think it’s because of that investment we have remained so active during COVID.”
Gordon says that Great Barrington’s community, organizations, and government should be commended for doing what they’ve done so far to support a safe and equitable municipality but added bluntly that it’s not enough.
“In many ways, Great Barrington was ahead of the game in looking seriously at this issue and in providing things like accessory apartments,” he said. “But I don’t want to see them be satisfied. We can’t pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve done enough. We can do more.”
Many towns throughout the Berkshires and Hudson Valley share the opportunities and issues facing Great Barrington caused by the COVID migration. That this town, its business owners and residents, are thinking holistically about how to include all residents in its success will be key in dictating just how great it will become.