Local News

Dear Faculty and Staff,

As summer enters full swing, I write to fill you in on several matters related to the health of the local community, upon which we all depend and in which the college is deeply invested. I apologize for the length of this message, but there’s a lot to talk about.

The first involves an announcement made Tuesday regarding Mt. Greylock Regional School. Several years ago, an alumna expressed interest in helping Williams by financially supporting change and innovation at the local middle and high school at a time of transition there. She and her mother provided $135,000 of seed money to be spent in the academic year 2011-12. With the college’s help they solicited Williams-related members of their extended family, 20 of whom contributed $150,000 to be spent in the academic year that just ended. Wanting to provide two more years of this kind of boost, they continued soliciting each other while the college reached out to local donors, some of whom are affiliated with the college. The result, as just announced, is an additional $450,000 to be spent on professional and curricular development at the school over the next two academic years. This work promises to have positive effects on the experience of Mt. Greylock students for many years to come, and we’re extremely grateful to the Jeffrey Family and local donors for this extraordinary investment in our community.

The community’s wholeness is the focus of another announcement, to be made this afternoon. A recent town-commissioned study confirmed the longstanding sense that Williamstown lacks sufficient housing that’s affordable for a significant number of our neighbors. That was the case even before Tropical Storm Irene took the homes of almost five percent of the town’s non-student population. Only a fraction of them have been able to return, to a situation that’s welcome but temporary.

The newly formed nonprofit Higher Ground approached us about the availability for affordable housing of a parcel of college-owned land that abuts Proprietor’s Field. That elderly affordable housing complex was built in the 1970s on what also had been college land. A preliminary analysis of the almost four-acre parcel showed it to be so well-suited for affordable housing that the college, with the approval of the Board of Trustees, decided to donate it to this project.

We requested proposals from five nonprofit affordable housing developers, and from their responses selected a team of organizations, including Higher Ground, that brings to the project both deep ties to the community and extensive experience in producing and managing affordable housing that’s effective, environmentally sustainable, and sensitive to its neighborhood and community. More news about this project, which complements ongoing public efforts of a similar nature, will be in the news and on our web site beginning later today. I’ll just add that, given how complicated affordable housing projects are by their nature, it’s great that as of today the community actually has one underway.

Another important part of the social ecosystem is Spring Street. When visitors from other small towns come here they often say, What, you still have a post office on your street? or You’re kidding, you have an independent cinema on your street? or, my favorite, What, you have ice cream parlors on your street?!

Yes, we’re fortunate to still have within walking distance of campus some of the amenities that are disappearing from town business districts across the country, but right now those of us who live here are aware more of the recent losses of businesses on the street and share a longing for a sense of more vitality in our town center.

Let me tell you about some things the college is doing to help advance the liveliness of the street at a time of rapid change in the national economy for small retail businesses.

One idea centers on a hotel. We’ve heard from many quarters the desire to have in town more guest rooms that aren’t lavish but aren’t a motel. We also heard that an appropriately sized hotel and restaurant, reminiscent of a New England inn, if placed at the bottom of Spring Street, would provide the added benefit of drawing new energy all the way down the street. A professional feasibility study confirmed that a hotel of around 60 rooms, located somewhere around where the American Legion building is now, would be profitable. If this project were to go ahead, it would be developed with funds other than those used for college operations, and the running of the hotel would be contracted out. Such a project, of course, would take several years.

Another key component of Spring Street is The Log. As much use as that unique building already receives, students and others are eager to see it used more consistently, particularly in the evening and possibly involving food as well as live music and related programming and entertainment. Many have stated the hope that The Log could become a place where students, faculty, and staff could interact not only with each other but with other members of the community. Steve Klass held a series of discussions with students, faculty, and staff to solicit ideas of how best to make these things happen and planning is now moving forward. Stay tuned.

A third idea is the longstanding one of incorporating Water Street Books into a full college store on Spring Street. This college town is one of the few not to benefit from such a thing. The right opportunity has yet to emerge, and I’m told that the financial crisis of 2008 didn’t help, but we’re relaunching with vigor the effort to figure out a solution.

All three of these initiatives have been, and will continue to be, discussed with relevant college committees.

Regarding the commercial properties on the street that the college owns, we manage those not as a business, which the college is not, but as landlords with an interest in the availability of goods and services that are useful and desirable to students, faculty, staff, and other local residents, and as an institutional citizen of our community. On the other hand, we have to manage those properties in a way that doesn’t drain money from our educational purposes and that treats fairly all of our tenants. When businesses close, as inevitably occurs for a variety of reasons, we look to fill those spaces with other suitable ones. That’s what we’re doing now with the spaces that have recently become open.

There are bound to be other commercial changes on the street–people retire, semi-retire, move on, or go out of business for any number of reasons. The key is to adapt. That’s what we’ll continue to do as well as we can.

If you’ve read this far, you must care as much about the community and the college’s relationship with it as I do. Thank you for that interest and for all the ways that so many of you in your everyday lives contribute to the health of our region and help knit together our college and community.

Adam Falk