Skiing has always been part of the Berkshire's winter season but ski areas are now improving their winter sports options and becoming year-round attractions.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshires recently hosted a meeting with the Legislature's Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development.
1Berkshire Director of Marketing Lindsey Schmid stood up before the group and began to tell the story about the importance of tourism in the Berkshires. But she didn't start with Tanglewood. Nor did she start with the Clark Art Institute or Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. She started with mountain biking, hiking, and snowshoeing.
"For a long time, we've been talking culture and culture continues to be the backbone of the message. That being said, I'm leading a lot more with the outdoor recreation message. It resonates as a year-round message. It resonates with families, young folks looking to travel. In terms of the visitor economy, it is shoulder seasons where we will see the growth," Schmid said in a recent interview.
It isn't that the cultural resorts have lost importance to the Berkshires and art and culture continues to be the main focus of marketing campaigns. But, there is more to the Berkshire experience than that and there has been a more recent focus on bolstering the outdoor recreation opportunities as a companion to the arts and culture.
"It is the combination of the experience that we really try to emphasize now because depending on who you are, different parts speak to you," said 1Berkshire President Jonathan Butler.
Both locally and nationally there has been a growing focus on the value of the outdoor recreation economy, with many towns taking the ball and running with it to dramatically strengthen that sector. Last year, Congress passed a bill requiring an economic report and examination of the role it plays.
The Outdoor Industry Association has already done economic modeling and has estimated $887 billion is spent on outdoor recreation annually. It contributes to 7.6 million jobs and the federal government is taking in $65.3 billion in tax revenue from it and states and local taxes are pulling in $59.2 billion.
In Massachusetts, outdoor recreation attributes for 120,000 direct jobs, $16.2 billion in consumer spending, $5.9 billion in wages and salaries, and $911 million in state and local tax revenue, according to OIA's study.
"When you invest in the outdoor recreation economy you truly do end up with healthier communities and stronger economies," said Vice President of Government Affairs for OIA Alex Boian. "In all 50 states, this really is a powerful economic driver."
The report cites places like Darrington, Wash., where the town focused efforts on building equestrian trails, a mountain bike park, and an archery facility after a 2014 landslide; three cities in Alabama created the longest urban whitewater rafter corridor and now shares and estimated $42 million in economic benefit; the Miami Valley in Ohio where a 240-mile trail system generates an estimated $13 million in economic impact; and Coal Township, Penn. where 6,500 acres of a former mine site was transformed into trails for all-terrain vehicles and draws some 10,000 visitors for off-roading.
The trade organization has been tracking the impact since 2012, and only this year broke it down into states. The group represents 1,300 companies and lobbies for public policies that support recreation and the conservation of public lands.
Boian said the industry provides jobs from being a corporate executive to a company like Boston-based New Balance to local entrepreneurs renting fishing boats to retail stores, and warehouses for large distributors.
"They'll open a shop in a community and immediately employ 30 people. Or it can be small mom and pop shops," Boian said.
State Sen. Adam Hinds said more is spent on outdoor recreation nationally than on automobiles and gasoline.
When it comes to recreation, Boian said those participating "can't just do an Amazon one-click" to get products to support the activities. The equipment has grown the become more specialized, where to go, how to do many of the activities all require face to face with retailers or those with special knowledge.
Meanwhile, the companies are performing research and development trying to come up with the next product — whether that be the next Goretex or using wool to keep dry or synthetic fibers.
"It truly is one of the most innovative industries around," Boian said. "These companies are constantly striving to come up with something better."
Locally, Butler said he's noticed a lot of entrepreneur spirit in the Berkshires growing around it. He's worked with adventure enthusiasts planning to do guided trail hikes or another looking to teach survival skills. There have been places in downtowns to rent bicycles and kayaks.
In Adams, Drew and Bridget McAuliffe were one of those people who came to the Berkshires for a visit to try ride on the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail. They assumed there would be a place to rent so they didn't bring bikes. When they didn't find one, they opened their own bike rental shop.
"We do a lot of cycling in the Berkshires and we came up here in the fall last year and thought we would give this a try," Drew McAuliffe told iBerkshires during an interview earlier this year. "There seems to be a need and the trail is right behind us."
Since opening, he has been renting to people from all over the country and they tend to stay at the local hotels.
"They can get the bike and have lunch at the Daily Grind [on Park Street] or go up to the Adams Ale House and instead of just passing through Adams they will come to Adams because it is a place where they can rent a bike," he said.
Hinds said the Berkshires are in a far better position to capitalize on the growing participation in those activities than other places because of its proximity to population centers such as New York and Boston and the amount of land available for recreation.
The county has 22 state parks and forests managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. There are thousands of acres in October Mountain State Forest, Savoy Mountain State Forest, Mount Greylock State Reservation, Beartown State Forest, and Pittsfield State Forest.
The Trustees of Reservation have conserved acreage and have hiking and cross-country skiing trails. The Audubon Society owns places like Canoe Meadows and Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. There are hiking trails owned by Berkshire Natural Resources including 408 acres in Richmond and 736 acres in the Hoosac Range. And many other areas of conserved land.
Brothers Jon and Jim Schaefer have fully embraced the recreational opportunities and the amount of conserved land in Western Massachusetts has helped them build a destination employing hundreds of local people. Their father Roy had purchased Berkshire East ski resort in Charlemont for $1 back in 1975. The mountain was resurrected and has been operating since then.
But the Schaefers recognized that one bad winter could make things difficult. In the mid-2000 they opted to go big. Since 2010 the company has been adding and adding the recreational options and now draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
"We don't cut corners and we don't shy away from building big things," Jon Schaefer said.
In 2009, zip lines were opened. They followed up installing a wind turbine to help ease the cost of electricity.
"We built the solar field in 2012 and added rafting, the mountain coaster, and a new lodge in 2014," Schaefer said.
A mountain biking park opened in 2015 and an adventure park in 2016. The resort added a bed and breakfast and wedding venue. They are now completely upping the game when it comes to snowmaking and trails for skiing. They're planning on creating 100 miles of hiking trails throughout the area.
Schaefer said everything they build is "category killer" and word of mouth has helped build a reputation and number of visitors.
And it has worked. Schaefer said the resort has exceeded the pro formas crafted for each addition made in recent years. The resort is drawing visitors internationally.
"It is amazing how far people will travel for these activities," Schaefer said.
He is starting to see a trend in that visitors will come from one day to try one activity out, and realize the others. On the next trip, they'll book some extra days and do multiple activities.
And Hawley and Charlemont have benefited.
"There is a real buzz around Hawley as a recreation destination," Schaefer said, adding that restaurants, retailers have reopened and homes have been resold.
Schaefer gives some of the credit to the region. He said the mountains in Western Massachusetts are easily accessible compared to other places.
"We set in and around thousands and thousands of acres of state-owned land," he said. "We're within a 100-mile drive of 200 million people."
When it comes to skiing, Schaefer says he is also finding more and more people stopping there instead of traveling to highly regarded and well-known skiing in Vermont.
Sen. Hinds is an avid mountain biker himself and says there is a lot to offer in the Berkshires. But yet, visitors are taking their money to stay elsewhere. Hinds believes the Berkshires have as much to offer as other places that market their mountain biking, but those enthusiasts are unaware of it.
"A lot of folks drive through the Berkshires to get to Vermont for skiing and mountain biking," Hinds said. "I feel we are not utilizing [outdoor recreation] to the extent we can."
The Berkshires are well positioned to bring in visitors from elsewhere, being close to New York City and Boston, than other areas of the country. Hinds said there have been multiple regions that have put resources into marketing and building recreational opportunities and the Berkshires need to do the same to stay competitive.
"The competition is growing quickly so we do need to provide a level of mountain biking experience that is competitive with other areas," Hinds said. "There are a lot of areas that have been revitalized through outdoor recreation."
In the city of Pittsfield, Mayor Linda Tyer wants the city to have the reputation of a recreational town. She said there are many outdoor recreational activities going on right now, but few people know about everything. She wants to elevate the priority to take more advantage of it.
"Imagine if we had high-end yurt camping at Onota Lake. Imagine if we had the bike path completed from North County to South County you could experience each one of our charming communities and urban environments on your bike. What if we had a snowmobile festival or an ice fishing festival? What if we really thought big about how to provide outdoor experiences for all ages and all social economic levels?" Tyer said.
"There is a rich opportunity here. We can preserve and be environmental stewards while we are promoting the experience of outdoor recreation."
Pittsfield already has a lot going on with outdoor recreation. But city officials don't feel that hasn't been promoted enough. At Springside Park, hundreds of mountain bikers race through the summer. The softball fields host tournaments bringing people from all over the country. Behind Reid Middle School groups have formed their own pickleball league.
"That is something that is a growing demand here. They are now at Reid Middle School and there are 50 of them there over the summer, twice a week. That was an amazing thing for me to understand. This is something we need to be responsive to," said Parks and Open Spaces Manager Jim McGrath.
To support the growing demand for pickleball, the city has been converting tennis courts to pickleball courts. McGrath said he is constantly going to conferences and reading journals to find what the demands are to use public park space. And, he promises to be responsive to what community groups need.
"We have our ear to the ground at the local level, but also the national level," McGrath said.
Another example would be the opening of a disc golf course at Kirvin Park.
"We have to be mindful that our economy will be strengthened as we improve our existing park areas. I've always said our parks need to be destinations. We have to have something for people to do when they are there. There has to be a hook," McGrath said.
The Garden, a retail shop on North Street, had played a large role in Pittsfield's outdoor recreation economy. The owners had been integral in the development of a new skate park on East Street. They've not only helped design it but has also driven traffic there through camps and competitions.
Another bicycle shop, Berkshire Bike, and Board, later opened right near the skate park.
"We can help them by recognizing the value they bring to our economy and help them to continue to grow and sustain their business. But they can help us too. The Garden was absolutely integral to ensuring we designed a skateboard park that met the needs and could evolve as those needs were evolving. And they were a critical partner with getting the word out," Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer said.
And there are niches like those popping up all over the city. The Berkshire Running Center opened a few years ago and took on not only retail of running equipment but also started training programs and organizing races - including competitions that start and end at the First Street Common.
"We will continue to provide for them so they can provide these events. We are very much a part of that," McGrath said.
Twice a year the center puts on a half marathon on the Asuwillticook Rail Trail and those culminate with a social event bringing people to downtown Adams. The Josh Billings RunAground is the second oldest triathlon in the country — an event Sen. Hinds won his division in this past year. That attracts thousands of athletes and their families to the Berkshires on an annual basis.
"We have more and more competitive events now in the Berkshires. Obviously, the Josh Billings is the signature event for outdoor enthusiasts but you have more and more half marathons, more and more 5Ks and 10Ks in the region, there are more bike races. This year they are continuing to grow the events at the Greylock Glen with snowshoeing," Butler said.
There are dirt bike races in Lanesborough. There are snowmobile races in North Adams. There are Ivy League regattas at Onota Lake. There are niches in mountain biking and cross-country skiing. There are more than a dozen golf courses in the Berkshires.
"There are a plethora of options for that, it is a great place to experience mountain biking. But we don't necessarily tie it in directly to the message about the Berkshires. There is an opportunity to promote specific things like that," Butler said.
Tyer is looking to bring those groups together to help bolster what each group does. While there are plenty of things going on, she wants to have a more heightened focus on utilizing outdoor recreation as an economic tool.
She envisions the groups teaming up for such things as a new triathlon to bring more people to the area. And she sees ways to cross-promote the various options.
"Imagine if we had a regatta experience at Onota Lake? Or a kayaking experience or regatta races? There are some great opportunities for us to establish that lake as a place to go for sculling and rowing. The same is true for winter recreation. How do we establish ourselves as the Massachusetts place for ice fishing and snowmobiling?" Tyer said.
The state spent nearly $3 million creating and expanding hiking trails around the Greylock Glen that connect to the Mount Greylock State Reservation. The town of Adams is looking to develop the Glen with primitive camping and and environmental center.
Not only can local towns be supportive of existing groups, but also be welcoming to others that come into the Berkshires on part of a longer trip. Housatonic Heritage recently established the Western New England Greenway, a road biking route that connects New York City to Montreal.
"It traverses right through Berkshire County," said Executive Director Dan Bolognani.
Bolognani said what he's found is that people doing cross-country bike trips tend to have money and spare no expense. He said the long-distance bicyclists stay in local hotels, visit the towns, and dine out.
"We see these long-distance bike paths as a low-impact way to bring tourists to the area," Bolognani said.
The route is intended for experienced bicyclists. While some of the route goes on the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail, Bolognani said most of the route is on state and towns roads, which those hardcore road cyclists prefer. Housatonic Heritage hasn't done an economic study yet but plans to in the coming year.
Bolognani said he is working with professional cyclists to create a guided tour throughout the area, which he hopes to roll out next year. That would chip away at what Bolognani sees as one of the major things holding the county back when it comes to marketing — monetizing it. Bolognani said the hiking trails and roadways are free for users so there hasn't been a commercial effort to market them.
"There is no business community here marketing our great hiking and biking trails," Bolognani said.
There are stewardship groups that promote trail use but not in the way a commercial enterprise would. The scenic beauty and outdoor experiences are part of the "fabric" of the Berkshires, he said.
He suggests towns do what they can to become cyclist friendly. He would like to see roads that can accommodate cyclists in a safer fashion, hotels and motels to have secure storage for bicycles, and have more bike shops and services.
"A lot of that will grow out naturally as that segment grows," Bolognani said.
In Pittsfield, McGrath said now in the planning for any project the city undertakes, bicyclists are thought about. The city has also recently adopted a complete streets policy to make sure things like bike lanes are considered.
"Any new projects that come online, we absolutely have an obligation to make them more bicycle friendly," McGrath said.
North Adams, Dalton, and Great Barrington have all received designations as an Appalachian Trail Community. Thousands of people take on the 2,200-mile-long trail from Georgia to Maine each year. All three of those Berkshire towns are making concentrated efforts to welcome those hikers into their downtowns for supplies, hotels, and food.
While the tourism aspects of the economy is most notable for the Berkshires, the outdoor recreational opportunities provide a piece in recruiting businesses too. And then, for businesses recruiting employees.
"We know many of the businesses, especially the manufacturers that are located here, could probably locate anywhere in the world. But they chose to locate here because of the beautiful environment we live. It is critical for why they are here, why they stay here and continue to grow and succeed here," Ruffer said.
"It is already part of our economy but I think with the mayor's vision, we are acknowledging the importance of that."
Zogics is one of those companies that could be anywhere else in the world. It is an international distributor of health and wellness products and was started by Paul LeBlanc, a former member of the U.S. Cycling Team.
"We're an e-commerce company that really can be based anywhere. It all comes back to the quality of work life and where we can be positioned to make the experience of growing a company as fun and rewarding and as pleasurable as possible," LeBlanc said in an interview earlier this year when he cited nearby attractions for hiking, skiing, bicycling, running, and visiting cultural attractions for the reason he chose to keep his business in the Berkshires. He recently opened a new location that doubles the company's footprint.
LeBlanc said not only is he choosing to run a business in the Berkshires but he uses the Berkshires to recruit talent to his company.
Ruffer said businesses focus their recruiting efforts on areas where there are more likely to be people apt to want to live in the county because of the outdoor recreation options. Pittsfield can't provide the urban life of New York City, but not everybody wants that.
"In recruiting we hear that young professionals are looking for a dynamic nightlife. Well, they are also looking for that recreation activity. They want to be somewhere where they can get out of work and 15 minutes later be on a ski slope," Ruffer said.
Butler had been one of those young professionals who lived in the urban areas. Living in Boston, it was frustrating for him that he couldn't get on a golf course or out to ski easily. And now he's moved back and has the chance to do those activities more frequently.
"We always talk about the Berkshires being well situated for work, life balance. I think recreation and the outdoors is a huge part of it, maybe the primary part of that. When you live in an urban setting you can get activity but usually, it is going from the office to the gym. Here it can be from the office to a bike on the back of your car and into the woods five minutes after getting out of work," Butler said.
"The same can be said for jumping in a kayak or getting out and taking a run through a trail system. I think our connection to nature and the accessibility of outdoor experiences really positions people well for work, life balance."
And people like Butler aren't few and far between. Berkshire Regional Planning Commission in 2015 conducted a survey of young adults to find out about their living preferences in relation to the county. It asked those who have moved away what would bring them back and 57.3 percent of those taking the survey responded they would like to move back for the outdoor recreation.
It is not just the younger crowd either. BRPC ran a separate survey of people over the age of 50 and found 57 percent of respondents participate in activities such as hiking, biking or kayaking, and another 11 percent would like to.
"It is not just about the next generation but creating an experience for people of all ages. We know we have an age-friendly community, we have an aging population. But we also want to support all of our businesses as they hire young professionals," Tyer said.
Boian said on the national level participation numbers have continued to rise. Schaefer said his participation numbers have risen. Bolognani said participation in Housatonic Heritage's free walking tours has been on the rise for 10 years. Hinds said one in three people bike.
Butler said one focus of the Berkshires should be on making sure participants of all skill levels have access to the trails. That means increased signage and wayfinding.
"It is not just the hardcore hikers and backpackers who find a way onto the trails wherever they are but it has become more family oriented," Butler said.
But with all of the available state-owned land in the Berkshires, over the years access and recreational opportunities have been dwindling somewhat. The Berkshires had more options in the past.
"The reality is because of state budget issues, there has been divestment from state parks. There are a lot of public resources available that aren't utilized in the ways they could have been 20 years ago. There is a number of public swimming areas that are no longer open that are on state property. There is a number of trail systems that have begun to fall into disrepair because there isn't that investment in state parks," Butler said.
Hinds, the senate chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, is hoping to change that. He has brought the conversation to his committee.
He is also pushing for the development of the Greylock Glen, which just recently opened new hiking trails.
"That is a key anchor point for how we do outdoor recreation," Hinds said.
He said he is working with mountain biking groups to map trails, identifying needs, and looking to improve signage. He is also calling for increased dollars to market the outdoor recreational opportunities in the mountains.
"It's a booming industry and one that is increasingly focused on younger people. Its something we should get ahead of in this region," Hinds said.
Other states have the same idea. Boian said in recent years Maryland, Vermont, and North Carolina have all created task forces or offices of recreation to focus on the issue.
Local officials have recognized it some years ago when the Berkshire Visitors Bureau changed its tagline from "America's Premier Cultural Resort" to become more encompassing.
"There was a realization based on research that culture is part of our message but nature, in terms of people who are thinking about visiting, resonates as much. There was sort of that realization 10 years ago that we need to combine those messages and since then you've seen more product for outdoor recreation come to the Berkshires," Schmid said.
Within the last year or two, the outdoor recreation aspect of the economy has grown in focus.
"We're better now than we were six months ago when it comes to open lines of communications with these entities," Schmid said of the numerous stakeholders in the industry locally.
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While our local legislators are supportive, we need to push for better funding of DCR and Mass F&W so they can take care of our natural resources--places for hunting and fishing, ORV and snowmobile riding as well as hiking, running and biking. At present, the environment gets about 0.5% of the state budget and that percentage has been dropping for years. See ELM's "1% for the Environment" effort here: https://www.environmentalleague.org/our-work/priorities/environmental-budget/