Some background: I covered the 13th state Senate District race in Connecticut, aka Republican incumbent Len Suzio vs. Democratic City Councilor in Meriden Dante Bartolomeo. It was possibly the most interesting, lengthy battle in our coverage area in quite some time. There were accusations and controversies for several months before Bartolomeo won, narrowly.
But nothing stands out in that race, for me, like Great Barrington. I went to the Hub in Meriden on a Friday (a day that is not great for fact checking). Dante held a press conference talking about a brownfield site in Great Barrington (pictured above). The site had been part of New England Log Homes, a company that built kits for log homes, of which Len was the president. Her charge was that (this is the briefing, not full extent, for that click on the link) the company was responsible for the toxins and chemicals that were in the soil. The site was never properly cleaned up by the company, which went bankrupt, and therefore the town/state was forced to clean up the mess, which cost millions of dollars and the site has been a complete eyesore.
Len of course debated some of the claims, but in later interviews admitted he did all that he could to improve the property when he took over as president. A business deal fell through and with no money, he could do nothing about the cleanup. It was not exactly the case as is in Meriden with the Hub, but Dante’s group made their point. A woman from Great Barrington, who lives across the street (I confirmed), was even there.
Anywho, I wrote the initial story, but we wanted to inspect this for ourselves. Was it really that bad? What did the townspeople think? What did it look like? etc. etc.
So I trekked the 70 miles one day by myself. I think it was the following Wednesday in September that I made the drive through northwest Connecticut. I had never been up there. Now I have…enough said.
I did plenty of research about Great Barrington, Mass. before I went up there. It was voted best small town in the country by a magazine, which impressed me obviously, but I had to see it for myself to believe such a claim. I hadn’t gotten much response from town officials, which meant one of two things: they wanted nothing to do with me and CT media, or they wanted nothing to do with that property.
I think it was a little of both.
The drive in is fascinating: you go from a mostly bare area to this little bustling town in seconds. Think of it like a downtown Middletown with more trees on the sidewalks, with more of a small-town feel. And you can freely walk across the street and cars stop and even wave. I was a little surprised. But there are plenty of restaurants and small shops and it just seems like a safe, nice place people would want to be.
So I had set up a meeting with Tim Geller, who oversees the South Berkshire Community Development Corp (an organization that has developed a private-public partnership to develop this site and others. He seemed a bit skeptical, but you probably would be too if some kid started asking questions about the site out of nowhere. I think he warmed up to me though and basically confirmed everything. The Democrats had done their research.
But he didn’t criticize Suzio who had worked with them and done all he could for them. He understood the company went bankrupt. Still, I got the feeling that Geller was still frustrated by the “mess” his town had to clean up. Obviously how can you blame him?
I left Geller and took my own tour of the town for a few hours.
The Log Homes site is a little off of the main road. You turn down the street, passed a bank and the Co-Op, a few manufacturing places, a former school (get to that in a second), go over a small bridge (where I took that photo) and you get to the site, which is on the right if you’re coming from the main road. On the left are a few houses. The first picture is deceiving; it actually looks more like this one below.
That gate goes all the way around the property, but you can only see the fencing for about 20 feet or so before it becomes trees and bushes again. But something was clearly there. And there is a reason why they can’t rebuild on it.
But the plan is definitely to rebuild and construct a small shopping center with some mixed-income housing. It would significantly extend the downtown and I could see it working well for Great Barrington. Then again, they also have a downtown with decent parking that people love being in. It could be just out of the way too far, unless people are actually living there and the (busy) Co-Op is moved there, which plans say it will.
After a few hours of walking around and visiting some of the sights, I made my way back. But as a community, local newspaper, the Record-Journal usually does not send its reporters too far. I’ve been to Hartford about a dozen times, but we like to keep things close to home. But there was certainly a lot to like about Great Barrington.