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Fairgrounds owners look to the future

GREAT BARRINGTON — Driving along Route 7 just south of downtown Great Barrington, motorists pass by the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. Once the site of a storied agricultural fair, the grounds have been abandoned since 1999. Now there are signs of revitalization of the site, and while news has already spread that the property has fallen into new hands with ambitious plans, many of us are left wondering ‘What is really going on with the Fairgrounds?’

To help answer that question, Berkshire Magazine, which ran a reflective piece on the Fairgrounds in its September issue, held a live panel discussion at the Triplex Cinema last Sunday. The panel featured new owners of the Fairgrounds Janet and Bart Elsbach, as well as several town of Great Barrington representatives.

The Elsbachs purchased the 57-acre property in December 2012 with the goal to turn it into a shared community resource incorporating educational, environmental, agricultural and recreational components.

The Sheffield couple had been looking at the site with serious consideration to buy it for the past ten years.

“It was just sitting there, waiting for someone to be brave or foolish enough to say ‘I think we can probably get this done,’” said Janet.

As Bart explained, it became clear that the community was not going to come together to ask the town to purchase the abandoned property, so he and Janet decided take action. “Janet and I stepped forward in recognition of that with the idea that we could be a catalyst for this type of positive change in the community,” he said.

Their vision is certainly ambitious and includes a multifaceted plan to revitalize the site. They aim to make it a sustainable community space with educational programs, a site museum, and an arboretum; farmer’s market, food storage and growing space including a greenhouse, and a centralized food distribution area; habitat for native plant and animal species; and a riverfront public park with walking trails, picnic spots, and canoe launch. The Elsbachs also hope to install a solar array to power the site with clean, renewable energy.

Challenges of the project

They have established the nonprofit Fair Ground Community Redevelopment Project to carry out this vision, but ultimately face several daunting challenges.

“At this point the prime stumbling block is permitting,” Bart explained.

“In terms of permitting, you have all the challenges of the categories of most complicated projects,” said Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin, who also sat on the panel. “You have the whole Alphabet soup of regulations to get through.”

Financing is another major hurdle. The Elsbachs are now trying to figure out where to get the money to fund each of the various components of the project.

According to Deb Philips, Great Barrington selectwoman and another one of the panelists, there are two main ways in which the town can financially support the project.

One is by going after grant money. “We can certainly and have every intention of signing onto any grants. We do whatever we need to to leverage private, federal or state money that’s available through the banks,” said Ms. Philips.

The second is through the Community Preservation Act, which Ms. Philips explained as a surcharge on the property tax that gets collected by the state and returned to the town.

“We will have a pot of money in the Community Preservation Act that can be used for restoring, affordable housing, and open space and recreation for the creation of new projects,” she said. The funds will be available in the fall of 2014, and a committee will review applications from projects and make recommendations to the town. The final decision for which projects to fund will be up to the residents of Great Barrington.

Yet another challenge facing the new Fairgrounds owners is just doing the physical labor, according to Bart. They have held community work days every other Sunday since last spring to do work removing invasive species and general cleaning up of the grounds and site. They even saw the entire freshmen class from Berkshire School show up at one of these clean-ups, a sign that there are at least some in the community who are willing to support the project and literally lend a hand.

Community support and space

“One thing that has been, fortunately, not too much of a challenge is a real sense in the community of positive good wishes and positive support,” said Bart.

Ms. Tabakin said she is very interested and personally supportive of the project and likes the alternative model of development it offers, as opposed to a more commercial enterprise. She also said that there seems to be a good deal of community support for it.

“I think Great Barrington offers a community that is uniquely supportive of these types of new projects,” she said. “It will really define a lot of what is making Great Barrington special and dynamic right now.”

“It’s been a gathering place historically, and it can be a place to bring the community together again,” added Ms. Philips.

The Elsbachs do intend to intend to do just that, not only by providing educational programming, a vibrant marketplace, and a public park, but also by holding community events in this shared space. They already held one major event there last April, and are planning another similar event for Saturday, October 12, 2013. According to Bart, the first part of the event from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. will be a clean-up and family fitness and fun day, followed in the evening by a concert featuring the Martha’s Vineyard-based band Entrain and a few local bands.

One of the unique things about the Fairgrounds project is that it does not resemble any other type of community development project out there. The closest model for the project would be the Intervale Center in Burlington, VT, which as Janet explained was once a derelict farm turned into an “incubator of all these kinds of organic ideas.” But while Intervale is agriculturally-focused, the Barrington Fairgrounds plan reaches beyond that one element.

“We hope to have open space and recreation, events, things of that sort that Intervale doesn’t have,” said Bart.

“If we were following a model from somewhere else I think we’d be doomed to fail,” added Janet.

She said they are just in the beginning stages of a long-term process and will need the community to come forward to make their vision for this community resource a reality.

“This is the beginning of a long-term, organic process that’s going to require people joining this effort to get this done for the community.”

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