Williams Inn sparks discussion on College’s influence

This is the third in a series of stories exploring how the College undertakes new building projects. The stories were originally produced for the course ANTH 232, “Town and Gown,” co-taught by David Edwards and Chris Marcisz, and revised and abridged  for publication.

Outside the Williams Inn stands a sign that reads, “Come Again,” but in as little as a year there won’t be any reason to do so. In spring 2015, the College first proposed tearing down the current Williams Inn and building a smaller, modern inn at the bottom of Spring Street, adjacent to the Williamstown business district. The new inn will have significantly fewer rooms and dining tables than the current Williams Inn. College administrators bill the new Inn as an upgrade for the community as a whole and an economic boost for the businesses on Spring Street, but some town residents question the College’s involvement in the future of Williamstown. Some question what the College envisions for the business district of the town, and whether or not that coincides with the town’s vision. Other residents wonder how the College has gotten into the business of setting up its own businesses, and whether it is appropriate for the College to be making decisions about the layout and makeup of the town’s principal business district. The negotiations surrounding the new Williams Inn offer a glimpse of how different parties view the role of the College in determining the town’s future.

One of those residents is Roger Lawrence, a longtime citizen of Williamstown who lives on South Street and will be directly affected by a new road that is being planned to accomodate the additional traffic on Spring Street. Lawrence believes that the College has changed drastically since he grew up in Williamstown, and that it is currently infringing upon his neighborhood. He has spent the better part of his life in town, and the community and College mean something to him. But in his eyes, the College is chipping away at the beauty and magic of the town. He tells me that he was “raised to look upon the College as a community of thinkers” and that he has a “positive history” with the College.

But for Lawrence, all that has changed. He describes a “shift in the community of thinkers,” saying that the trustees brought in by Adam Falk, the current president, have embarked on a round of unnecessary building projects that include the Inn. For him, the relatively new administrators at the College tasked with managing the building projects are outsiders. They have neither an investment in the community they are developing nor a full understanding of how they are changing the place for lifelong residents. And most importantly, they do not share his vision of a quiet, largely undeveloped, New England town.

This change in the College’s mindset affects Lawrence personally. In the past year, the College has bought out his neighbor to the north after a dispute, a wealthy trustee of the College has bought the property across the street from his house and the College has proposed to run a road through his neighborhood that abuts his property line.

Lawrence mentioned that the College has already put in 19 new streetlights that illuminate the whole neighborhood throughout the night, disrupting the calm he has experienced for years in his house. Each of these complaints may seem trivial, but for Lawrence, they add up to the feeling that the College is running over his home.

Lawrence has petitioned at town meetings, and repeatedly talked to Jamie Art, a new administrator at the College in charge of real estate development, asking that the road not be built in exactly that location and instead that traffic be diverted to a different street. The road would connect the Clark Art Institute on South Street to the new Inn, though there already exists another route that connects the two buildings just 240 yards away.

In his eyes, this is a case of the College not respecting or caring about the residents of Williamstown. He thinks that the old College would have understood how negatively a new road would affect the atmosphere of the town.

Art, however, views the Inn from the other end of the spectrum. In his mind, the College is doing a major service for the town; the Inn is an improvement that will benefit both the College community and the town.

Art says that the Inn will bring life to Spring Street and that it will increase foot traffic, therefore increasing revenue for businesses on the street. He mentioned that tourists who come to see the Clark or spend some time in the “Village Beautiful” only spend the day or afternoon in town, opting to drive back to a hotel in Lenox or North Adams instead of spending the night in Williamstown. Art believes that by adding a premier hotel in the center of town that is also situated between the business district and the Clark, more guests will stay over in Williamstown and the economy will reap the benefits.

At one point, the town rejected the proposal for the new Inn, and Art mentioned that the College has had to jump through a number of hoops to get the project off the ground. For him, it does not make sense for townspeople and the town government to push back on new buildings like this one. Residents have asked for a vibrant downtown district and that requires investments in the area that bring in revenue. Art says that he thinks the College is held to a “higher standard” than other institutions in town, and “any private business would be immediately approved, but for the college there’s a lot more scrutiny.”

Art believes that the College is being a successful “steward” of the town. He acknowledges that because the town significantly relies on the College economically, there is an imbalance of power. He openly describes the College as an “800 pound gorilla,” with enough influence to do as it pleases, within reason. Art makes it clear that there is a model in which the College is not as involved or economically invested in the community, but in that one, “this town looks like Lanesborough.”

He thinks that the College continues to do a good job in managing this power and that it takes the opinions of the town and its residents into account. He posits that “[the College] asks more permission than [it has] to” and tries to keep residents informed about what plans the College has. The College has held community meetings to clarify plans, cultivated a strong working relationship with town officials (a significant improvement over previous years) and contributed financially to projects like the new Mount Greylock Regional High School building and a solar energy project in town. Art says the College tries “not to be the 800 pound gorilla” and that they do their best to tread lightly in the town and to respect the town’s needs.

According to Art, the College has a set of responsibilities to which it must attend. In order to attract faculty and students, the College needs a hotel that is modern and comparable to those at other premier institutions. In the same vein, it must cultivate a town that is presentable enough to appeal to faculty who would raise their families in Williamstown. “We’re going to do it, we can do it,” Art said.

He wants to fit the needs of the town into that framework of those objectives, adding that “we want to work for the community too.” As long as the goals of the town and the College coincide, as they do in regards to creating a vibrant street, a high school, or solar power, the two work in near lockstep. The natural question is: how does the College react when the two institution’s objectives do not line up, when their visions do not match, especially now when the College is in the middle of a massive building campaign that includes, in addition to the Inn, a new science building, dormitory and bookstore, all of which some community members believe intrude upon the public space of the town?

He argues that the College is very generous in comparison to other colleges with similar town-gown situations, saying, “in comparison, we do a lot.” But at the same time, he understands that the College is more powerful than the town, even going as far as to say that “[the College has] to work within the [Town bylaws], but they’re only guidelines.”

Mike Goodman, another resident of Williamstown, feels that the College is exerting its influence where it does not belong; that it holds too much of a stake in the future of Williamstown. He worries about putting a college-owned Inn in the center of the town’s business district: will it take business away from other hotels? Will it raise the price point of stores around it? What about the increase in traffic? He is hesitant to voice his approval for another building project that increases the College’s influence and decreases the town’s inherent agency.

Besides the resentment, Goodman laments how much things have changed. He misses the Williams Newsroom, an old newsstand on the street that went out of business a while back. He also misses the old gas station where the B&L Building is now, the record shop that used to be on the street, and even the old, funky Purple Pub. He knows Williamstown cannot go backward, but like a lot of other community members, he really wishes that it could.

But he also said that he has “faith in the College,” and that as a top educational institution, it can be trusted to make choices that benefit both the town and College alike. He added that his wife recently opened a print shop on Spring Street in a College-owned unit and for that reason he’s hesitant to criticize the College. But he also feels some gratitude. The College controls the rent for the properties it owns on Spring Street, allowing businesses that otherwise might not be able to turn a profit to remain open. Goodman notices when the College bails out the town or its residents and understands that without the College, this place would look much different.

On one hand, Goodman has seen his town turned on its head in the last 20 years, and there’s a certain level of resentment that comes along with that. Conversely, he understands what the College has given this town. He sees the surrounding communities and their struggling economic situations and is grateful that the College is here to support the town economically and socially. He is grateful that his wife can run a business in town, and that there will be a new Inn for visitors to stay at. The tensions between Goodman’s two visions for the town and in town-gown relations are indicative of the different viewpoints throughout the community. Residents understand that progress must be made and that progress often means development, but many resent the way the Williamstown of their childhood continues to wither away before their eyes, replaced by a new College-conceived Williamstown they did not ask for.