In Lenox, a Debate Over How Much Tourism is Too Much

This weekend, the Berkshire town of Lenox will welcome autumn with its annual Apple Squeeze festival. Businesses will showcase their offerings in booths lined throughout downtown, with the smell of hot apple cider and chili in the air. 

The goal is to celebrate the town and attract the first waves of visiting leaf-peepers. But not everyone here wants to see the bustling summertime tourist trade extended throughout the year. This debate has revealed deep divisions about the future direction of the town itself. 

Elsewhere in the Berkshires, a consensus has emerged over the past decade or more: tourism is good, and more tourism is better. 

As the longtime home of Tanglewood, Lenox is used to a summertime visitor influx, a tradition stretching back to the days of the Gilded Age. But though the region-wide trend is to build a so-called shoulder season in the months before and after the lucrative summer season, many in Lenox are saying: not so fast.

Matthew Tannenbaum has held court in his downtown bookstore for thirty-seven years, chatting with longtime customers and first-time visitors alike. 

“We try to tell a story with every book we sell—a joke or a story. You’re lucky if you just get a story,” Tannenbaum says.

It’s the epitome of the small-town, first-name-basis kind of vibe that many city-dwellers are seeking for their weekend getaways. But Tannenbaum warns against the town doing too much to hype the laid-back qualities that lure tourists in the first place.

“You kind of just got to back and do what you do, be who you are. So I’m kind of not in favor of a lot of the shoulder season activities. You need room to breathe, too. You know, wintertime is a good time to like slow down,” Tannenbaum says.

Many here are asking the question: when a town markets itself as a haven for visitors—with all the tourist-targeted boutiques and high-end restaurants that come with that distinction—when does it start damaging the very character it was trying to advertise? 

“Because we’ve become a tourist community, it’s impossible in downtown at least to buy a spool of thread or a handkerchief, but we could probably buy three different sized unicorns,” says Bob Romeo, a local real estate broker and landlord. 

Romeo would like to see town government take an active role in marketing the town as a tourist destination in a more coordinated way. 

Things seemed headed that way last spring, when Lenox’s town manager included in his proposed budget $52,000 for a full-time staffer to promote the town and plan events. But the Lenox Select Board wasn’t convinced town hall has a role in boosting the tourist trade, and cut the funds—though voters later approved a much smaller amount for a part-time temp job.

Lenox Selectboard member Channing Gibson says town government should stay out of the tourism business. 

“It’s not clear that everybody in the town would like to have the town change and grow. And that’s a valid choice to make, not to do anything new, not to bring in any new businesses, as long as everybody understands the consequences of that,” Gibson says.

If Lenox doesn’t see increased revenues from the state-levied lodging and rooms taxes, which currently funnel nearly two million dollars a year into town coffers, Gibson says residents may prefer to pay higher property taxes than to risk seeing the town change.

Carl Pratt, general manager of the upscale Cranwell resort here, likens the recent debates to a certain fictional character. 

“There is a little bit of a…Push-Me-Pull-You. Remember that animal that had, it had two heads both going in different directions? There’s a little bit of a two steps forward, one step back kind of scenario,” Pratt says. 

In 2011, the town invested more than $50,000 to hire a New York marketing firm called Hamilton Public Relations to re-brand the town. It came with a good resume and clients including the National Football League and HäagenDazs

But then it unveiled the new marketing campaign: Lenoxology. Many unimpressed residents complained loudly, insisting a local firm would have come up with something better. After much hubbub around its launch, Lenoxology fizzled quickly. The website based around it is already defunct.

In the wake of the debacle, the Lenox Selectboard removed the word “marketing” from the name of the volunteer Marketing and Events Committee.

Romeo says the hostile reception to Lenoxology is part of a more general resistance to the realities of economic growth.  

“The town has been anti-development for many years, and what’s happened again is that the influence of those folks who want to keep Lenox as it was is strong,” Romeo says.

But many business leaders say there’s little choice about what direction to go in, if the local economy is going to thrive. Ralph Petillo, director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, says the town is moving forward—whether it’s happy about it or not.

“I think people are aware that Lenox needs to insure its economy, which at the present and probably for the foreseeable future will be tourism. Whether they’re eager to embrace that or not is a double-edged sword,” Petillo says.

A series of public meetings is envisioned for this fall, to get a bearing once and for all on where the people of Lenox want the town to go.