hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




The second-home economy

Some see double-edged sword in region’s growth as rural getaway


Contributing writer


Chris Martin and Anita Hotchkis spent a recent weekday morning tending the ever-evolving garden that surrounds their waterfront home in Great Barrington.

The couple finished building their home overlooking Round Pond last year, but they still spend most of their time at their primary residence in New Jersey and at a second home in Hilton Head, S.C.

Martin, though, said it’s always difficult to leave the Berkshires.

“This place is so peaceful,” he said, gesturing towards the sparkling lake behind him. “The next guy is a half-mile a way. I never hear him. All I hear is the loons singing.”

Drawn by peace, quiet and culture, Martin and Hotchkis are part of a growing contingent of vacation-home owners who are reshaping the economy of the region.

Newly released data from the 2010 census show the population in Berkshire County has shrunk by 8,000, or nearly 6 percent, over the past two decades. But in the same period, the number of houses in the county grew by more than 4,000, or 6.5 percent – and seasonal housing increased by nearly 25 percent.

Across the state line in Columbia County, N.Y., the population increased by a miniscule 0.2 percent, or 114 people, over the past 20 years. But more than 3,600 new homes sprang up in that time, an increase of 12.5 percent.

A similar if less dramatic trend is evident in every other county in the region. Even in counties like Saratoga, Warren and Washington, where the year-round population grew at a healthy pace over the past 20 years, housing stock increased at an even faster rate. (See accompanying chart.)

Planning officials and political leaders say the census figures reflect the region’s changing economy. As counties on both sides of the New York-New England border lost traditional manufacturing jobs over the past 20 years, tourists have been flocking to the area in ever-greater numbers. And as the number of visitors falling in love with their newfound rural getaways has grown, so has the number of second -- and even third -- homes.

Not everyone is thrilled by the trend. Some critics contend that the demand for second homes is pricing local people out of the real-estate market. And the jobs created by the region’s booming tourist industry don’t pay as well as the manufacturing jobs that have left.

But others point out that newcomers like Martin and Hotchkis are supporting the local economy. The couple, in fact, said they made certain to use local contractors when they built their house, and they regularly patronize local businesses, providing an infusion of cash they’ve earned outside the region.

Nat Karns, director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said the growth of the area’s tourism and second-home industry is good news for Berkshire County -- a sentiment echoed by planning officials in Columbia County.

“The visitors, be they second-home owners or be they weekenders, do bring in outside money and spend that money in the local economy,” Karns said. “That makes them a basic industry in terms of how we support ourselves. But squeezing out average local families in the process – that’s obviously an issue.”

Escaping to culture

Martin and Hotchkis got their introduction to the Berkshires through Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“We’d come up on weekends to stay in bed-and-breakfasts for three days or so,” Martin explained. “Finally, we decided we just had to get a place here.”

A modern-art statue sits between the couple’s house and Round Pond. Their well-manicured gardens are set around intricate stonework. Just before Memorial Day weekend, Martin and Hotchkis were busy unloading pansies from their Mercedes-Benz and planting them around the property.

Martin, now retired, was a civil engineer by trade, as evidenced by a bridge that spans the distance from his home’s fourth-floor tower to the road. Hotchkis is still a practicing lawyer and works primarily in New Jersey.

The couple’s home is one of 298 that sprang up in Great Barrington since 1990, according to census data. During the same period, the population of Great Barrington dropped by 621 -- to 7,104 people.

Planners around the region caution the increase in the number of houses can’t be entirely attributed to an influx of second-home owners. As baby boomers age and family sizes shrink, they point out, the number of people living in each housing unit is decreasing, which necessitates more housing stock to accommodate the same number of people.

“People are building homes here,” said Patrice Perry, a senior planner for Columbia County. “But as the population ages, the household size here is decreasing.”

But Perry said tourism and second-home ownership, particularly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, have no doubt prompted a lot of new housing construction in the county in recent years. And nearly everyone interviewed for this story pointed to advances in communication technology over the past two decades that have made it much easier for people to work from their country homes.

Bertram Freed, who founded the Kinderhook Group real estate brokerage in Columbia County, said he noticed an uptick in the number of second-home seekers from the New York City area after Sept. 11. But he also said the region’s cultural attractions -- and its relatively easy access to metropolitan New York City -- have been the primary draw for his clients, before and after Sept. 11.

“I think the population of Columbia County literally doubles now in the summer,” Freed said. “It’s hard to measure, but it’s happening.”

Freed said as many as 60 percent of the new homes he sells go to people who will use them as secondary residences.

The growth of the weekend and summer population has shaken up the politics of Columbia County, where Republicans long dominated but newcomers are much more likely to lean Democratic in their voting habits. The result has been some close races for Congress and local offices – and a couple of legal battles in which the GOP sought to disqualify absentee ballots with return addresses from New York City. Back in 1999, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the county by 13,366 to 9,607, but Democrats now hold a slight edge, 13,974 to 13,180.

Changing faces

Gladys Montgomery, a Berkshire County real estate agent, pointed out that the area has been a major location for summer homes since the Gilded Age. She said what has changed recently -- and drawn in more people -- is the growth of the area’s modern creative economy, which has been fueled by an influx of artists, photographers and designers.

That’s exactly what led Richard and Clare Proctor to make the jump from second-home ownership to full-time residence in Berkshire County. The Proctors, originally from London, said they were never interested in the region’s classical music performances or high-end art galleries. Instead, they were drawn to what they described as the organic folk art they say is bubbling just under the surface of the county’s mainstream culture.

The Proctors bought their second home in the town of Lee in the early 1990s and spent a couple of months every year in the area. But a month ago they bought the Briarcliff Motel in Great Barrington – a conventional roadside motel they plan to renovate into an upscale, bed-and-breakfast type operation.

“We’re happy for the business that Tanglewood brings, but what really gets us is the folk element – that everyone’s a bit of a musician,” Richard Proctor said.

The region’s fertile ground for artsy types, however, may make it less hospitable to the kinds of families who were drawn here in the past by blue-collar manufacturing jobs.

Neither Marion nor Michelin Lipniski is a musician, for example. The couple lived in Lee for many years but packed their bags for Wichita, Kan., three years ago for a better job and a bigger home for their growing family.

“I think young families are leaving the Berkshires because there’s really not many high-paying jobs and the housing market is too expensive,” Michelin Lipniski explained in a phone interview from her new home in Kansas.

“It’s a wonderful place to live,” she said of the Berkshires. “But to afford it is crazy.”

Her comments echoed the sentiment often repeated by longtime residents that the region has become too much a playground for the wealthy – with too few opportunities for people of modest means to get ahead.

Lipniski said she and her husband came to the area originally for a job at Sheffield Plastics, a regional manufacturing facility.

“After realizing how limited the options were around here, we had to leave for a more stable environment,” she said.

Freed, the Columbia County real estate agent, disagreed with the notion that there are no affordable houses for young, working families.

“We’ve really got openings in every price range,” he said.

But nearly every area resident interviewed for this story begged to differ.

An industry in its own right

On the jobs front, area planners and politicians admit that there are a finite number of work opportunities in the area – particularly for young people, whose exodus from the region is well documented.

“It’s not like we have a gazillion jobs; we’re not a large urban area,” Karns said. “So we’re definitely going to see college-educated youth drawn to metropolitan centers like Boston and New York.”

But Karns said the notion that the region’s economy is dominated by tourism is false. He said manufacturing remains the most significant component of the local job market in the Berkshires, even after the loss of major employers like General Electric, Sprague Electric and some of the paper mills along the Housatonic River.

Karns acknowledged, however, that lower-paying tourism and service industry jobs have served as a “replacement sector” since manufacturing began its decline in the 1980s.

“It’s been bad from a jobs perspective,” he said. “Many jobs in the replacement sectors don’t pay as well and don’t have the high level of benefits.”

But on the whole, he said, tourists and weekenders have been a boon for the local economy – at least to the extent that they bring in outside money that gets spent at local businesses.

“That makes them a basic industry in terms of how we support ourselves, and it does change the income dynamic from what it was 30 years ago,” he said.

Freed was quick to point out that, as much as it might seem like second-home owners are driving up home prices for local residents, they’re actually providing an infusion of cash to a region that would be losing traditional blue-collar jobs with or without the newcomers.

He noted that second-home owners pay property and school taxes despite minimum use of local services.

“Second-home owners don’t use the school system, and they may use the roads one day a year,” he said. “In reality, they subsidize all the full-time residents.”

Prescriptions for growth

In Saratoga County, which for the past decade was the fastest-growing county in New York, local officials expect continued rapid growth in the years ahead as a new high-tech manufacturing complex sets up shop in the town of Malta. The Luther Forest complex, which is forecast to create hundreds – and perhaps eventually thousands – of new jobs, is the county’s answer to the decline of heavy industry across the region, and its economic benefits are expected to spill over to Warren and Washington counties.

To the south, however, in place like Columbia and Berkshire counties, local officials say they’re worried about developing sustainable industries that can support growing families, grateful as they are for the influx of cash that comes with tourists and second-home owners.

In Columbia County, Board of Supervisors Chairman Roy Brown, R-Germantown, has talked of developing tourism and agribusiness to create more jobs and perhaps curb the outflow of young people for major cities.

But skeptics say focusing economic development efforts on tourism and second-home ownership is a recipe for a Main Street that’s superficial and unsustainable – especially if the tourists and weekenders drawn to the region tend to be hostile to the prospect of new industrial development.

Matthew Frederick, a Hudson, N.Y., architect and writer on urban issues, said his city’s much-lauded main drag of art galleries and upscale restaurants is “built on quicksand.”

Frederick said the only hope for the city is to get back to its manufacturing roots by focusing on nurturing small- and medium-sized businesses that produce something besides atmosphere for tourists and weekenders. If allowed to blossom, small-scale manufacturing businesses have the potential to restore a sustainable economic base to the area, he said.

Frederick said if the jobs are gone, people have to leave. Art galleries and antique shops that are open two days a week will only employ so many people, he said.

“People here are focused on turning the city into art galleries for the white-tablecloth crowd,” he said. “We’re just skimming the cream off the top. We’re taking the easy way out.”

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