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Berkshires' Williamstown emphasizes Livability

Williamstown in the Berkshires is renowned for Livabilty

Williamstown in the Berkshires is renowned for Livabilty

Putting an Accent on Livability This Berkshires Community Is Much More Than a College TownBy KATHLEEN MITCHELL  Peter Fohlin says Williamstown offers plenty of arts and recreation options without the traffic and bustle of a large city.  
In 2007, Money magazine named Williamstown as a contender for one of the best 100 places to live in the U.S., an honor that speaks to how much this Northern Berkshires community has going for it.The town earns high marks because it is home to Williams College, which has consistently been ranked as the top small liberal-arts college in the country, but also home to the prestigious Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, which sits a short distance from downtown and attracts tourists from around the world, and also the Tony Award-winning Williamstown Theatre Festival, which runs every July and August."This is one of the easiest towns in Massachusetts to live in," said Town Manager Peter Fohlin. "We don't have choking traffic, there's lots of outdoor recreation space, and we have a great variety of restaurants and entertainment. The college provides a great deal of opportunity for people to take part in cultural events, music, and drama, and we are centrally located -- just a few hours from Boston, New York and Montreal. Where else would you want to live?"Williams College is the predominant physical presence downtown, and its buildings line both sides of the main street. But they are punctuated by shops, businesses, and eateries, and the college and the town share a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence.In this, the latest installment of its Community Profile series, BusinessWest takes a close look at what makes Williamstown such a desirable place to live, and also at two exciting new multi-million-dollar projects which will provide new office space, luxury condominiums, and a rebirth of the town's noteworthy Purple Pub.Town and GownOriginally called West Hoosac, the area was incorporated in 1765 as Williamstown after Ephraim Williams, who was killed in the French and Indian War, bequeathed a significant sum to the town on the condition that it was named after him.

He started a free school that opened in 1791 and was named Williams College in 1793. Today, that early learning institution plays a vital role in the town's economic and geographic profile.

"We don't have tracts of land suitable for large-scale industry," Fohlin explained. "The industrial space we have is intensely developed, and the downtown is occupied largely by Williams College. Its academic and athletic facilities are all downtown, with retail and commercial businesses sprinkled along the campus. So there is no identifiable boundary between the campus and the community. You don't cross a line on campus or off campus."

Even the college offices are housed in rented spaces in commercial buildings on Spring Street, which is where the hub and bustle of the town is found. "There is nothing on Main Street. It runs through the center of town, and the town's businesses and campus buildings are all on the veins of side streets with a fair number of residences sprinkled in," Fohlin said.

As a result, the downtown area is very compact and an attractive draw for people who want to be park their cars and walk wherever they need to go. "It's easy to find a place to own or rent where you can walk to restaurants, the movie theater, a golf course, or the college's cultural and sporting events," said Fohlin.

Since townsfolk and college students intermingle, the town and college have established and maintain an excellent working relationship. "We have a peaceful and amicable relationship with the students," he continued.

There are seven crosswalks on Main Street, and Fohlin says officials monitor the status of the town/gown relationship by the number of hand waves exchanged between students and drivers at the crosswalks. "I sent a letter to the college about how polite the students are this year," he said.

The college, the community's largest employer, works hand-in-hand with town officials and has consistently provided support to the community. "In 2002, they donated $1.5 million toward the construction of a new elementary school," Fohlin said. "They have endowed a staff position at the high school in language arts and continuously donate computers and furniture to the school. We have a continued collaboration over sidewalk maintenance and the roads where the college and the town intersect, and we try to identify mutually beneficial projects, because the dividing line between the town and college is imperceptible."

As a result, the two entities work out a cost-sharing agreement for infrastructure projects. Last year the town increased the size of its municipal parking lot by 50%. The project cost $400,000, and the college managed it and paid for it. "Their students use the parking and they are part of our community," said Fohlin.

Even the Town Hall history is associated with the college. It once operated as a fraternity house and Fohlin said every year former students who once lived in it come back to walk its halls.

Going Up

There isn't much room in the town for new development. So growth comes from the redevelopment of existing properties. At present, there are only two projects that fall into that category. Both are former restaurants, with one located on Route 2 and the other on Route 7. However, it's unlikely they will open again as eateries.

"The restaurant market in Williamstown is pretty much shaken out," Fohlin explained. "We have pub-style, Greek, Italian, Mexican, American steaks, chops, and fish. There's a lot of diversity, and most of them have been in business from 10 to 50 years. We are right-sized in the restaurant business."

The town doesn't have any fast-food restaurants or big-box stores, but Fohlin said there is no need for them, as they can be found in nearby North Adams. "Wal-Mart just built a Superstore there and has other stores in Pittsfield and in Bennington, Vt.," he said.

The town has a single-screen movie theater, and although it's small, it's located on Spring Street. "People can walk to Spring Street, eat there, go the movies, and even cross between crosswalks without any problems. There is also a marvelous coexistence between vehicles and pedestrians," Fohlin said.

A major redevelopment project on Spring Street, which Fohlin calls "exciting," is expected to be completed in January. "The former Hopkins Furniture Store is being rebuilt as an environmentally friendly LEED-certified building," he said. "There will be retail shops on the first floor, including Nature's Plaza, an outerware and outdoor activity store which is moving from Bennington, Vt.

The $4 million project was initiated by Mark Paresky, a major Spring Street landlord, who gutted the building and rebuilt it. The LEED gold status he is seeking requires high-efficiency heating and cooling mechanisms and materials, insulation, and the use of recycled and regional products wherever possible.

The first floor will also house a resurrection of the town's famous Purple Pub, which burned down about two years ago.

"It was a town institution frequented by generations of college students," Fohlin said. "Everyone is looking forward to it coming back. It's a great social gathering place. Williamstown without the Purple Pub is like a flagpole without a flag. It's not Williamstown if the Purple Pub is not open." The restaurant will be housed in the new back addition to the building and will feature folding doors that will open onto a small patio for outdoor dining in good weather.

The 63,000-square-foot structure's second, third, and fourth floors will be professional office space and will include a 'penthouse' office on top of the original building with an open deck above the third floor. "The building will house the first new Class A office space built in northern Berkshire County in the last 30 years," Fohlin said.

Another project that is generating excitement is the conversion of the former General Cable Mills into a mixed-income residential community. The mills' history of making wire and cable dates back to just after the Civil War, and their renovation will be a dramatic addition to the town.

The mills run along the Green River on Water Street. The first phase of the project involves the rehabilitation of the three existing mill buildings into 61 luxury condominiums. Fohlin said 12 of the units will be reserved for people who make 80% percent of the median income or less and will be priced according to their incomes, while the other 49 will range in price from $300,000 to $700,000. Occupancy of the first phase is planned for the fall of 2010.

The second phase will be the construction of 21 new riverfront townhouses and duplexes, while the final phase of the project will be the development of a 30,000-square-foot parcel on the southern end of the property, which is zoned for business. The use of that area has not yet been determined.

General Cable Company manufactured wire and cable in the buildings until the early 1990s. Before being closed for redevelopment, it served as incubator space for small technology and investment companies.

"General Cable mills sit right on the edge of the downtown area," Fohlin said. "It would have been a disaster to have an abandoned mill there. To add housing stock where people can walk to restaurants, movies, and the golf course is a pretty cool thing, and adding 61 units when the economy is in such difficult shape is something to feel good about."

Williamstown is known as 'Town Beautiful,' and its bucolic landscape is part of its attraction. "The town is surrounded by mountains on all sides. One of the most spectacular sites is when it snows in the winter at the high elevations. It's like someone took a paintbrush and put a white line around the town. It's like we are living in a bowl," Fohlin said. "Above 1,300 feet, there are no buildings, which reduces the area that can be built. Water, sewer, and natural gas are all limited to the greater downtown area."

Although many people love living downtown, the town offers a variety of residential options. People who want more privacy live in south Williamstown. The majority of that area contains farmland and converted farmland, with homes that range in price from about $1 million to $10 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are two mobile-home communities, which Fohlin is proud of, as they make it possible for people of all income levels to enjoy the town. One community has about 100 homes, while the other houses about 40 units.

New construction is also ongoing. "We have a steady homebuilding business here, especially for second homes," Fohlin said. "We have 11 new homes under construction right now. This is a highly desirable community because of the quality of our public schools and municipal services. It attracts people who move here and causes parents to bring their children here under school choice."

The Big Picture

Fohlin said that, in addition to being a college town, Williamstown is known for its culture. "The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is world-famous. It was built here in the 1950s by the Clark family as a safe depository for their art collection in the event of a nuclear war with Russia," Fohlin said. "After they passed away, it was turned into a public institution of world renown. People from all over the world come here to see the Clark art collection."

The museum is in the beginning stages of a $25 million expansion project. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando and landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand Associates will design a campus plan that enhances the institute's setting, expands the facilities for its public and academic programs, and reconfigures its galleries to broaden the ways in which visitors experience works of art.

Tourists frequent the town in every season. "In the summer we host the Williamstown Theater Festival and the Williamstown Film Festival. Conferences are also held at Williams College by the Massachusetts Teacher's Assoc. and smaller organizations," Fohlin said.

The Williams Inn, a dozen or so motels, and a half-dozen bed and breakfasts house the tourists, who frequent Williamstown in the fall for the foliage and in the winter for the nearby ski resorts.

"The college is our economic flywheel, and tourism is on top of that wheel. It's what makes our economy go," Fohlin explained, adding many people visit the town in tour buses.

Tourists also visit the town to enjoy canoeing on the Hoosic River and the Rural Land Foundation's network of hiking trails.

Fohlin sees the town as a great place to visit and an even better place to take up residence. "Everyone has to live somewhere, and anybody who can should live in Williamstown. It's a great town," Fohlin said. "I've always said Massachusetts gets better the farther west you go. And if you can't find what you want in Williamstown, you don't have to travel far to find it."

Just a few of the reasons why this college town receives high grades for its livability and should continue to do so in years to come.