As regional economy wanes, Berkshire East banks on outdoor recreation

  • Berkshire East opened a “self-guided” ropes course in 2017, one example of its efforts to expand outdoor recreation activities on the mountain. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/3/2019 12:00:44 AM

CHARLEMONT — While many industries in Franklin County are struggling, one field remains steady and is even expanding: outdoor recreation.

Berkshire East, the county’s only alpine ski field, is an example of the strength of outdoor recreation in the region, as it has expanded its summer programs significantly in the past five years. The ski field opened a mountain coaster in 2014, a network of mountain biking trails and white water rafting programs in 2015, two ropes courses (an “aerial adventure park”) in 2017, and a new camping site last year. This summer, Berkshire East is set to open a new bike trail with plenty of jumps for advanced riders.

Gabe Porter-Henry, who was raised in Heath and recently bought a home in Charlemont, is Berkshire East’s marketing director and activity coordinator.

“We’re always looking at what fun and exciting activities we can add to the mountain just to help continue to grow outdoor recreation in Charlemont,” Porter-Henry said. “We’re always keeping an eye on what things we can do, along with improving what we have here on site.”

By adding new outdoor activities to its offerings, Berkshire East seeks to encourage visitors to come to the mountain during warmer months for a day or even a weekend.

“We’re seeing more of that,” Porter-Henry said. “People coming up, spending two or three days and doing a variety of different things.”

When Porter-Henry returned to Franklin County in 2014 after several years away, he said many Charlemont storefronts were empty. Since then, he said, the area’s business district has grown, with a couple of new restaurants opening — including Lazy Taco last week. He attributed this growth partly to the town’s 2017 designation by the federal government as an “opportunity zone,” which gives tax incentives to new businesses in low-income areas.

Local legislators have also expressed interest in capitalizing on the outdoor recreation opportunities in the region. This year, State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, introduced a bill to create an outdoor recreation office within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to expand the state’s “recreation economy.” Porter-Henry expressed strong support for this bill, saying such an office could help promote Charlemont’s offerings to locals and visitors.

Next up, Berkshire East is set to open a long ziplining course at its newest acquisition, the ski resort Catamount, which straddles the New York-Massachusetts state line.

While traditionally viewed as a day resort, the mountain does have some limited lodging options. In 2014, Berkshire East bought the Warfield House Inn and currently operates it as a bed and breakfast with 14 rooms. Plus, the mountain opened a basic camping site last year, mainly to accommodate mountain bikers, Porter-Henry said.

“On the weekends, things are booked up,” Porter-Henry said. “We weren’t looking to walk everyone in to be at Berkshire East all the time, but they needed a place to stay. There was a demand in Charlemont to have more options for places to stay.”

While rumors of a new Berkshire East hotel have been swirling around, Porter-Henry said there are no plans to open such an establishment yet. The town of Charlemont also has a smattering of motels for visitors.

While Berkshire East has focused on its outdoor programs, the company has also expanded its winter offerings, opening a new ski lift in 2014 and a beginner trail starting at the top of the mountain a couple years ago. The field has also increased its snow-making production, purchasing some new machines and improving current facilities, Porter-Henry said. And while the ski field is seeing warmer winters and late starts to the snow season (the first snow of the past season happened in mid-January), Berkshire East was able to open in late November due to its snow-making abilities.

“There’s been a lot of expansion, a lot of added activities,” Porter-Henry said. “There’s not much industry here. Outdoor recreation really is something that can be a good economic development model for the area.”

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.


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