WILLIAMSTOWN -- A consultant hired by Williams College has recently found that a New England-style inn with around 60 rooms, near the bottom of Spring Street, would be profitable for the college. The project would be part of the college's comprehensive plan for revitalizing the downtown area.
Williamstown's many overnight accommodations include the historic 1896 House, the Berkshire Hills Motel, the Williams Inn, and a number of smaller bed and breakfasts.
Although the college proposal is still in its early phases, it has raised questions about the future of the Williams Inn, an on-campus hotel that has enjoyed a long relationship with the college and town communities.
Carl Faulkner, owner of the Williams Inn, first came to the Berkshires in 1977, with the intention of buying the Sheraton Hotel in North Adams. A flat tire diverted Faulkner and his wife, Marilyn, to the Williams Inn, which had been built three years earlier.
Faulkner went into the building to wash his hands, and when he came back out, he told Marilyn, "Forget about the hotel in North Adams, let's wait for this one to go broke."
"And she said, ‘How can you tell?' And I said I could feel it. And two years later it did go broke and that's when I came back."
Over the years, the inn's role in housing visitors during commencement, alumni weekend, sports games, conferences and other Williams College events has made it an important asset to the college.
Williams bought the inn's mortgage about three years ago during a dispute between the inn and its former bank, Mountain One. Faulkner said the dispute led to lingering and false rumors that the inn would be closing or changing hands.
After hiring a lawyer, Faulkner began looking for a new bank, with the goal of increasing the mortgage, which would help pay for renovations. The inn was approved for a federal Small Business Administration loan, but Faulkner couldn't find a bank willing to become involved with the both the mortgage and the government loan.
Williams College, fearing the loss of the inn, "came like a white knight and bought the mortgage away from the bank, which took all that sweating off of us," Faulkner said. Williams also owns the land on which the inn was built in the early 1970s. (The original inn is now Dodd House on the Williams campus.) Faulkner's lease ends around 2039, at which point the land will revert back to the college.
Improvements to the inn have been slow but steady, Faulkner said. This month, the swimming pool was resealed and repainted and old pillows and pillowcases were replaced. All of the second-floor rooms have been renovated, with new carpeting, windows and drapes. Ten years ago, a $3-million addition was added to the rear of the building.
"We're being very hesitant on doing major renovations because we don't want to lay [anyone] off," Faulkner said. He noted that some employees have been with the inn for 30 years or more.
Faulkner is somewhat skeptical of the college's plans for a new inn. While acknowledging the need for a more vibrant downtown, he wonders if there might be a better location for the inn. He mentioned the town's opposition several years ago to the college's proposal to build the ‘62 Center at the bottom of Spring Street, and the relative lack of visibility to travellers on Route 2.
But Spring Street is closer to campus buildings, and to the college's Weston Field athletic facilities, where major renovations are expected to begin this year. Taconic Golf Course and Lansing Chapman Rink would be just a short walk away.
Michele Gietz, co-owner of Where'd You Get That!? on Spring Street, is optimistic that a new inn, along with other changes, could help revitalize the entire downtown area.
She expects the expanded Clark Art Institute, when it opens in 2014, to generate year-round foot traffic and possibly attract new businesses geared toward an international clientele. She believes a boutique inn could provide a foundation for further development.
"When you get that kind of investment in a downtown area, that's positive all the way around," she said.
Fred Puddester, vice president for finances at Williams, who has been meeting regularly with the Faulkners, believes it is necessary for the college to be asking whether the size, location and other qualities of the Williams Inn are appropriate to the college's needs. But he said it was too early to know the answers.
"There's lots of discussions that have to go on between now and getting to [a decision on] whether we do an inn downtown," he said.