A group of people are trying to reclaim the long-dormant Great Barrington Fairgrounds.
Bart Elsbach and his wife Janet purchased the 57-acre property in December 2012 after years of trying to acquire the property or at the very least stop the commercial development of the land. A Connecticut-based hedge fund sold it to the Sheffield couple for $800,000 after a New York City-based firm failed to push through its proposal for a hotel. The firm bought the site in 2006 for $2.7 million. The fairgrounds was home to the longest continuously operating agricultural fair in New England before it ended in the 1980s. Elsbach sees the area along Main Street as the southern gateway to the Berkshires.
“It has a great deal of historic resonance for people in the area who remember going there as kids when it was the fair, as my wife and I did,” Elsbach said. “It seemed like preserving some of that and focusing on some of the qualities that make us all happy to live in the Berkshires would be a better use of the property than some of those proposals.”
Elsbach helped start a non-profit, the Fairground Community Redevelopment Project, to provide a clear vision and organize cleanup efforts for the reclamation of the land.
“Volunteers from the area come in and help us to try to pull the site back from the derelict state that it was left in over the last 15-plus years where it was really in kind of a shambles,” Elsbach said. “We’ve worked very hard. It’s looking much, much better. It’s hard to believe how far the site has come aesthetically.”
Plans include the renovation of the grandstand at the horse racing track that remains, though thoroughbreds no longer run there. The structure was rebuilt after it was damaged by a tornado in 1995. Elsbach says it looks to be in good enough condition to host music and other performance events. Elsbach had hoped to begin construction of a timber building on the footprint of a 30 by 200-foot cowshed this year, but they are yet to receive a permit from the town of Great Barrington.
“We are not a wealthy corporation or business that can come in with the plans fully developed and an opening date on the table,” Elsbach said. “This is a more organic process. It’s going to take many years and it will be contingent on the support that we can garner from all areas.”
Town Selectmen held a special meeting on the topic June 17th, which will continue July 1st. The Selectmen have expressed hesitation because of the lack of project details and concerns that the fairgrounds is a floodplain of the Housatonic River.
The Great Barrington Farmers Market started calling the fairgrounds home this year. More than 1,200 people have shown up each Saturday to see what the roughly 30 vendors have to offer. Market manager Howard Lefenfeld says the move has doubled the number of visitors to the market, now in its 24th year, with great visibility along the heavily traveled Route 7.
“For the last 20 years we’ve been at the old train station here in Great Barrington and we’ve just been busting at the seams and needed more room,” Lefenfeld said. “The fairgrounds offered us a beautiful venue and plenty of parking.”
A community garden, recreation areas, market space, a dog park and river walkways are also planned.