In Familiar Dilemma, Town of Lee Weighs Options for Old Mill Buildings

The town of Lee, Massachusetts, is trying to find a constructive use for the cavernous mill buildings that once employed many of its residents, but now sit empty.
Lee was a thriving hub for paper mills in the twentieth century. But the last active mill closed in 2008, leaving large empty spaces at the heart of downtown.

Melissa Provencher of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission says potential developers may be wary of environmental hazards they wouldn’t uncover until after purchasing the property. 

“We’re talking about properties that may or may not be contaminated, that have the potential for contamination or perception that it may be contaminated. And any time it’s an industrial mill building like this, there’s going to be some level of question.”

Though cities like North Adams and nearby Hudson, New York have successfully found creative uses for inactive industrial sites, Lee is one of many towns who’ve had trouble.  A developer purchased one of Lee’s empty mills in 2010, but then put it back up for sale last year after abandoning plans to build a mixed-use development. A similar plan in Housatonic collapsed last year after extensive talks.

A new grant from the Environmental Protection Agency will fund a two-year study of three former Lee mills, plus another in adjacent Lenox Dale. 

Lee Selectman David Consolati wants the three properties to house employers who could counter troubling demographic trends.

“Try to get some sort of business that allows an opportunity for the kids who grew up in Berkshire County to stay here. They’re projecting us to lose twenty percent of our population in the next ten to twenty years.”

Consolati says the town is in talks with a new developer who is interested in one of the mills, and hopes to have news on that by the end of the month.