By Harry Montgomery
Two new hotel projects are likely to be on the Warrant for Williamstown’s May 17 Town Meeting. For some time we’ve heard about the College’s plans for a new hotel at the bottom of Spring Street. Information sessions by senior College staff now have forewarned if not necessarily persuaded us on its characteristics: 60 rooms, 40 backup rooms and a large banquet area. (The Williams Inn has 124 rooms and 6,000 feet of meeting space.)
As complement or alternative, Michael Deep is developing a project for an inn-style hotel adjacent to his south Williamstown Waubeeka Golf Course on Route 7. If approved, this could be key to a revitalized Southern Gateway to Williamstown. And to the economic viability of Waubeeka.
Golfer/Proprietor Deep has now been before the Planning Board three times, assisted by an attorney with long-time knowledge of the property, Stan Parese. Parese has reminded us of the history of hotels and other businesses at Five Corners in the heart of South Williamstown. For years, on the hillside north of Route 43/Hancock Road and west of Route 7, stood the large and “elegant” Idlewild Hotel. South Williamstowners as well as golfers love the open green landscape of Waubeeka, and there seems to be consensus that, in the two years since Deep bought the golf course, he and his team have done an impressive job of maintaining and upgrading its greens, golf activities, and the dining room. However, without an additional source of revenue, such as a hotel, Waubeeka will not remain financially viable. Deep or any other owner will eventually be forced to replace golf with subdivision lots.
The Waubeeka project, like the College project, would require zoning changes. Initially, discussions led the Planning Board and its Planner, Andrew Groff, to propose a multi-use zone, largely corresponding to the Five Corners Historical District. This was to include Waubeeka, but also the Store at Five Corners, the adjacent Farm Market, and the Center School property which will be the new home of the Williamstown History Museum.
Discussing Waubeeka again at the Planning Board’s second October meeting, South Williamstown neighbors remained essentially favorable to the hotel project but voiced misgivings on creating new business sites in the area. With Groff back to his drawing board, the likely outcome now is a Board proposal for a new more hotel-centric zone with a smaller area footprint.
Placing an Article on the Warrant for May’s Town Meeting is still in sight, but getting there won’t be speedy. Additional Planning Board meetings are expected to yield a proposal to the Select Board by March. With the latter’s approval, the issue will go on the Warrant. The Planning Board then will hold information sessions for the town in the run-up to the May Meeting. Given Warrant approval by the Town’s voters, Deep could actively seek a hotel investor/operator as his partner. With the partner, major decisions could then be made on questions such as number of rooms, scale of dining and meeting facilities, and auxiliary recreational offerings such as swimming and tennis. The partner would need both to finance the project and to adapt and accommodate plans to Williamstown and neighborhood sensibilities on architectural choices including “inn style” and height. Finally, the detailed Waubeeka hotel plans would be taken to the Zoning Board of Appeals, giving the Town the ultimate say on project particulars.
Mike Deep says the question most often posed to him is whether the hotel would require a town sewer or water main hook-up. His answer is an adamant, No. Wells and the septic system would remain the private cost and activity of Waubeeka. Rather than posing an expense to the town, Deep expects the hotel to pay about $300,000 in annual property taxes as well as augmenting town revenues via room and meal taxes. Some questions remain: How many rooms could and should there be in a Waubeeka hotel? Doesn’t a hotel need around 125 rooms if it is to attract convention business? We’d like visitors to the Clark and other town attractions to stay overnight. However, with at least two big hotel projects set for South County, is the Berkshires’ hospitality business at risk of being overbuilt?