hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News  February-March 2018



Local malls wither as shoppers go online


From the Berkshires to Rutland, indoor shopping malls are seeking a new purpose as major retail chains abandon them in the face of online competition.

At the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough, four anchor stores – Best Buy, Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears -- have pulled out since 2015, and one of the largest remaining retailers, American Eagle Outfitters, said in January that it would close. More than half of the mall’s retail spaces are empty, and after an early January snowstorm, large swaths of the mall’s parking lot were left unplowed.
The Berkshire Eagle reported last month that town officials have already obtained state grant funding to have the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission research ways to redevelop the mall property. The options could include “housing, indoor agriculture, mix use with some housing – some eight to 10 varied scenarios,” Laura Brennan, a senior planner for the commission, told town officials.

The town is working with the Baker Hill Road District, which owns and maintains the connector road that provides access to the mall and links U.S. Route 7 and state Route 8, the two major north-south corridors in the Berkshires. The district is attempting to buy the mall property from a Long Island investment group that acquired it in 2016.

In Rutland, the struggling Diamond Run Mall suffered a new blow in January when its last remaining anchor store, Kmart, announced it would close by April. The mall’s other former anchors, Sears and JCPenney, had been gone for some time. Within a week of the Kmart announcement, another of the mall’s largest remaining tenants, the furniture store LaFlamme’s Inc., was forced to close after its creditors won a court order to force it into bankruptcy liquidation.
The Rutland Herald quoted Joshua Terenzini, the Rutland Town Select Board chairman, as saying the town has reached out without success to the mall’s owner, BAI Rutland of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., to offer help. The Herald reported that BAI bought the property for $4.3 million – far less than the previous sale price of $53 million when the mall changed hands in 2007.

Under a deal reached when Diamond Run Mall was built in the early 1990s, the mall’s owners have paid the city of Rutland an annual impact fee through the Zamias Fund (named for the development company that built the mall) to be used for downtown projects. Sharon Davis, the president of the city Board of Aldermen, told the Herald the payments totaled more than $100,000 a year when mall had three anchor tenants, but she said the payments have since dwindled to about $30,000 annually and were often late. Davis said the city is willing to work with town officials and the mall’s owners on “repurposing” the property.

Elsewhere in the region, the effects of a changing retail economy aren’t being felt just in shopping malls. As chain stores cut back in the face of online competition, even upscale destinations like the outlet stores of Manchester, Vt., have seen an increase in turnover and vacant storefronts. In the past year or so, chains that have pulled out of Manchester include Banana Republic, Coach, Yankee Candle, Famous Footwear and Eastern Mountain Sports. But locally based enterprises account for the majority of Manchester’s retail spaces.

In other news from the region in December and January:

Mass. towns prepare for retail pot sales
Communities around the Berkshires are trying to decide where and how to allow retail marijuana sales under the cannabis legalization measure Massachusetts voters approved in 2016.
Some towns, including Stockbridge and Dalton, have imposed a temporary moratorium on retail marijuana businesses while they wait to see the final version of rules being drafted by the state’s fledgling Cannabis Control Commission, which is responsible for regulating Massachusetts’ new legal marketplace for marijuana. The commission issued draft rules late last year and is in the process of holding public hearings around the state before issuing final rules in March. Commission members have said they expect legal retail sales to begin on schedule July 1.
The Berkshire Eagle reported that in Stockbridge, voters at a January town meeting approved a moratorium on non-medical marijuana businesses through Dec. 31, the latest date allowed by the state. In Dalton, the town Select Board imposed a moratorium through June 30 and will ask voters at this spring’s town meeting to extend the moratorium through Dec. 31.
In Williamstown, the town Select Board voted 4-1 in January to issue a letter of “non-opposition” to a proposal for a medical marijuana dispensary at the Colonial Plaza on Route 2. The founder of that dispensary business, Joshua Silver, has indicated his company would seek to sell recreational marijuana as well if the state grants him permission to do so after the new regulations are finalized. The area that includes the shopping plaza is already zoned to allow retail marijuana shops.

In North Adams, the Eagle reported that a working group appointed by newly elected Mayor Thomas Bernard has proposed draft zoning regulations that effectively would bar retail marijuana sales from the downtown area as well the city’s residential and rural zones. Retail cannabis sales would be allowed in commercial and industrial zones, while marijuana cultivation and other non-retail operations would be allowed only in industrial zones. The City Council is expected to decide by April whether to adopt or modify the zoning proposal.

The 2016 state ballot question legalizing marijuana was supported by a majority of voters in every Berkshire County town and received more than 60 percent of the vote in Williamstown and North Adams.

Meanwhile, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill in January to allow recreational use of marijuana, making his state the first in the nation to do so by legislative action rather than through a voter referendum. Vermont’s new law makes it legal for adults to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana but has no provision for legal production or sale of the drug, which remains banned under federal law.


Refugee group sees no new arrivals in Rutland
The nonprofit organization that resettled three families from Syria to Rutland last year says it has “zeroed out” its goal for steering any more refugees to the city this year.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants advised city officials in a Jan. 4 letter that the organization, which as recently as last fall had predicted that as many as 75 refugees would ultimately resettle to Rutland, was revising its estimate to zero for the remainder of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, based on new data from U.S. State Department.

The Rutland Herald reported the changing goal after two senior officials of the nonprofit group visited the city in mid-January to meet with Mayor David Allaire and Alderman Chris Ettori. The meeting was not publicized in advance, and the newspaper said it learned of it afterward from someone who attended.

Allaire was elected mayor last year amid a backlash over his predecessor’s decision to volunteer Rutland as the new home for up to 100 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Despite the opposition, a local volunteer group, Rutland Welcomes, organized to assist the refugees in their move to Vermont.

Only two of an expected 25 to 30 families arrived in Rutland before President Trump, in one of his earliest acts in office, issued the first in a series of executive orders restricting the flow of refugees into the United States and halting immigration from several majority-Muslim nations, including Syria. As the president’s orders were revised and at times blocked by the courts, a third family made it to Rutland, bringing the total number of refugees now resettled in the city to 14.
Although Allaire had criticized former Mayor Christopher Louras’ refugee resettlement effort over its size and initial secrecy, he told the Herald last month that the city is committed to helping the refugee families that have arrived in Rutland.

“I am supportive of the folks that are here,” Allaire said.
-- Compiled by Fred Daley