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




Town green for a localvore era

Owners aim to turn old fairgrounds into center for local agriculture



Contributing writer


At the town’s southern gateway on U.S. Route 7 lies the derelict Great Barrington Fairgrounds, a complex of ramshackle stables and barns, an overgrown racetrack with vine-shrouded stewards’ towers, a crumbling grandstand, and ticket booths encased in an impenetrable web of bittersweet.

Established in 1841 to celebrate rural life and situated on the floodplain of the Housatonic River, the 57-acre fairgrounds once hosted the longest continually operating fair in New England. But it has been virtually abandoned for the past 15 years, victimized by uninspired management, insufficient revenues from horse racing, and, in 1995, by a tornado that damaged the grounds and grandstand.

Over the past two decades, various schemes to revive racing by adding off-track betting or slot machines faltered under regulatory challenges and withering public disapproval. A plan to transform the parcel into a convention center with a 100-room hotel also stalled. By 2009, the property had fallen into the hands of Silver Point Capital, a Connecticut-based hedge fund that tried desperately for three years, through seven successive bankruptcy auctions, to recoup its $2.7 million investment.

Like the phoenix, however, the fairgrounds is coming back to life, with the potential for becoming, once again, an icon of agricultural vitality and a center for maintaining rural self-sufficiency -- and quite possibly as an economic engine for Great Barrington.

In December, Bart and Janet Elsbach of Sheffield, the next town to the south, managed to convince Silver Point Capital, after six months of negotiation, to sell them the fairgrounds for $800,000. Their intention, as they tried to explain the Silver Point’s money managers and lawyers, is to transform the fairgrounds into a nonprofit center for sustainable living practices and sustainable agriculture, a site for educating residents and students about the value of locally grown farm products, as well as a site for recreation and entertainment.

In effect, the Elsbachs’ notion was to create what Great Barrington didn’t have: a modern, expanded version of the town green.

“For the longest time, they didn’t believe us,” Bart Elsbach said, recalling the protracted negotiations to acquire the property. “A nonprofit enterprise, especially one based on local food production, wasn’t in their world view. They thought we had some secret scheme to make a huge profit. But we saw the different kind of potential for the fairgrounds every day when we drove by it.”

Agricultural mission

By January, the Elsbachs founded the nonprofit Fair Ground Community Redevelopment Project, which immediately attracted 150 volunteer members and announced a $1.5 million fund-raising campaign. The nonprofit aims to take over ownership of the fairgrounds, restore the grandstand, and establish a community-supported-agriculture operation to supply local produce year-round to retail and institutional member-customers throughout southern Berkshire County.

The goal of the agricultural operation is to supply stores such as Guido’s Fresh Marketplace and the Berkshire Co-op Market as well as public and private schools, institutions such as Fairview Hospital and its network of nursing homes, and resorts such as Kripalu, Canyon Ranch and Blantyre.

So far, the response has been favorable. And in the case of Mount Everett High School in Sheffield, the fairgrounds could become the location for a revival of a vocational agricultural program.

At Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, the student senate has convinced the administration to have at least one lunch per month served in the school café be made exclusively from local, organically grown produce. In season, the ingredients come from the school’s own Project Sprout, a student-initiated community garden.

“Our mission is agriculture, education, open space preservation and the environment,” Janet Elsbach explained. “We want to seed the area with farmers educated in sustainable agricultural practices. The fairgrounds is so visible, is centrally located, and it has beautiful land. As such, it’s the perfect place to advance the concept of conservation, of educating more people, and in cultivating ways to have healthier food move to the marketplace.”

Her husband, Bart, explained that the couple is examining other large-scale CSA farms as models.

“We are looking at operations like the Essex Farm in Essex, N.Y., and Intervale Farms in Burlington, Vt.,” he said. “The idea behind these CSAs is local food for local people, rather than having food production driven by corporate criteria. And the communities that have a more intimate relationship with the land and the sources of their food are shown to have lower crime rates, a higher standard of living, and lower health costs to the community. Being outside and connecting the food you eat to nature is healthy.”

The backbone of the fairgrounds project, he added, will be its educational programs.

“As kids learn about food and how it should be produced, their parents do too,” he said.

Feeding an appetite

Art Ames, the general manager of the Berkshire Co-op Market and an adviser to the new fairgrounds organization, pointed out that the demand for local produce at the co-op is so strong that it currently outstrips the capacity of local farms to produce.

“If it’s done right, the fairgrounds, as Bart and Janet envision it, could become a significant economic engine for South County,” Ames said.  “My crazy idea for the fairgrounds is that if they build a network of generously-sized greenhouses, we will be able to extend the growing season and at the same time train – and support -- a new generation of farmers under controlled conditions. If we grow our local food network, we have to grow farmers as well.”

Ames has good reason to be concerned about the supply network for local produce – and the rising cost of transportation to get food to market.

With revenues of $8 million annually and rising, the co-op has outgrown its facility and is planning a new, larger store. One of the reasons for the move is the necessity for more storage space.

“We’re going to triple our storage space so that we can cut down on deliveries from four times a week to two -- to avoid the transportation costs,” Ames said.

Boosting the supply of locally grown produce would reduce the need for transportation and storage, however.

“We have a symbiotic relationship between the co-op and the fairgrounds project,” Ames said. “I see them able to being able to lease those greenhouses to farmers. That means they will have an income stream so they won’t be relying on grants. That means they will be sustainable. At the same time, when they have the capacity to flash-freeze produce, they’ll be able to have it packaged, so we’ll have our own brand: Berkshire grown. I see us eating locally grown squash in January that we get at the Co-op or Guido’s.”

He also predicts that the agriculture program at the University of Massachusetts could well be persuaded to put the fairgrounds at the center of a curriculum.

“UMass would love to train new farmers,” Ames said. “This could be a combined training and producing facility. That means that high school vocational programs could be located there. It would be a real boon to the community.”

Broader economic benefits

Christopher Rembold, the Great Barrington town planner, said the fairgrounds redevelopment fits the objectives of a town master plan now being drafted.

“The big issues for the town are open space preservation, the reuse of dormant sites like the fairgrounds and the mill buildings in Housatonic, the effects of climate change, and economic development,” he said.

Tim Geller, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Community Development Corporation and a member of the fairgrounds project’s board, said he believes the vision for an agriculture-focused economy is not only viable but an essential step toward what the community will need in the future.

“We have to produce more food locally because, soon, transportation costs will be prohibitive,” he said. “Over the next 10 to 20 years, we need more land in production – 50 to 100 times more land in production. The fairgrounds project is really building for the future of our children. It will be a game-changer for local consumption, by adding value to the products grown and made here.”

In his view, the fairgrounds project embodies an economic catalyst.

“This restoration of the fairgrounds will bring back special events in the spring, summer and fall, like concerts, festivals, antique shows – things of that nature -- that will bring tens of thousands of people to Great Barrington and be a huge boost for restaurants and businesses,” Geller predicted. “Every dollar made outside of the high tourist months of July and August makes our businesses more stable.”

Apart from the economic benefits of having the fairgrounds property thriving once again, Geller said the longer-term benefit will be growing agriculture as a key part of the economy.

“We need a central food hub, where there is a linkage between supply and demand, so that we can supply local institutions such as our schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and places like Canyon Ranch and Kripalu,” he said. “In 40 to 50 years, there is the distinct possibility that local agriculture and food production will be the focal point of our economy. But beyond that, what food production represents is import substitution: providing locally what was previously brought in. We are adding value to local products. This can be a game-changer.”