The Great Barrington Exhibition Center in 2018. The solar farm is north of the old circuit grandstands on the left.
GREAT BARRINGTON – The future of the fairgrounds remains uncertain after the Suffolk Downs horse racing plan failed sometime last year. The website's owners say they make inquiries on a weekly basis, although a number of potential suggestions, including one from the town, have died.
Meanwhile, owners Bart and Janet Elsbach are in a real estate tax dispute over a piece of land they have spun off the nonprofit location to rent to a solar company, and this litigation has had a “crippling” effect the Fair Ground Community Redevelopment Project. the nonprofit they founded to revitalize the remaining 40 acre property.
Last year the solar company, which leases a 9-hectare piece of land for its installation, successfully sued the Elsbach family for forcing them to pay property taxes, which a judge believes are the responsibility of the landowners. The couple appeals against this decision.
The Elsbachs, who acquired the former racetrack and the agricultural exhibition grounds in 2012, continue to respond to inquiries and suggestions. So far, they have turned down a number of potential offers, saying they remain true to their nonprofit mission of turning the place into a multi-faceted communal space where food can be grown, collected, learned and played and nature restored. That return to their vision comes after the couple came close to signing a lease with Suffolk Downs that would have revived horse racing in the state. The company, which was looking to spend $ 20 million to renovate the site, announced in February that it had pulled back to focus on other plans back on the tax list – but not with any plan.
“We're very eager and open to people who can work with us, but that doesn't mean we only take the first person to come,” said Bart Elsbach, noting that the couple are in the process of investigating another proposal .
Now other potential developers are saying that their deal efforts have been unsuccessful.
“Mystery,” said Judd Shoval, a town resident who wanted to buy and build homes and small retail stores through his company Shoval Enterprises and donate nearly half of the land to the town for recreational purposes, including possibly an ice rink and dog park. Shoval also owns the adjoining mini-mall. “This thing has stalled and I have no power in it. That thing was dropped. “
Another said he made an attempt that not only stalled – it crashed.
A vision board for the exhibition center created by Dan Levinson and Monique Bosch of Main Street Resources.
“We offered them to sponsor, fund and implement [a vision of the site] This is akin to the community and community projects we've done many times over the past 10 years, ”said Dan Levinson, who co-runs a non-profit organization with Monique Bosch that is looking for ways to support community projects across New England. They drew a vision board from the original ideas of the Elsbachs. It includes community gardens, a soccer field, function rooms and a center for rescued horses.
The condition for the company's commitment, however, was that the Elsbachers distance themselves from the plan so that the community would get involved in the face of the difficult history with the city.
“Unfortunately, at that point, things collapsed,” Levinson said.
Bart Elsbach denies this, saying that while that vision was compatible with the nonprofit's mission, Levinson suddenly pulled back when Elsbach said he wanted to be in control.
Elsbach said that in Shoval's case, the developer's plans did not align with the mission.
Bart Elsbach, right, is standing with a Suffolk Downs official and advisor in 2019 when Elsbach and the nonprofit wanted to rent the property to the company to revive racing there. The company withdrew last year.
Even though the website wasn't on the market, city officials said in February they would buy it. Shortly afterwards, they publicly declared their frustration with the Elsbachs for not reacting to their overtures. Bart Elsbach, in turn, condemned the city's actions with them – as well as a high tax rate for the solar park – in a letter to the editor.
Bart Elsbach said in a telephone interview that the non-profit organization had been established.
“We were a little exhausted and we are sorry that our vision could not be implemented as we had hoped, but we are still committed to the mission statement,” he said.
Lawsuits and Taxes
In 2016, the non-profit organization sold 9 hectares for $ 13,500 to Elsbach's own Fairgrounds Realty LLC, according to public records. The LLC then leased it to solar company LSE Corona Borealis LLC, which operates 30 solar parks across the state, including a handful in the Berkshires and two more in Great Barrington. The energy generated by the fairground array benefits local low-income homes that buy their electricity at a reduced rate through an energy credit program.
The Elsbachs moved this smaller parcel to the LLC so that solar use would not affect the charitable status of the larger exhibition center, according to the lawsuit filed by LSE with the Berkshire Superior Court. The complaint said the Elsbachs told the LSE that they were responsible for the property taxes under the 20-year lease, and when the Elsbachs refused to pay the taxes, LSE paid them to cause trouble with the city avoid.
The judge ruled in LSE's favor in February and awarded the company a total of $ 56,692, including $ 22,439 in property taxes, as well as legal fees and other expenses. Elsbach, who is appealing the ruling, said the LSE is suing most of the landowners in its portfolio. Jeffrey Macel, CEO of LSE, says that's not the case – that the company has only been involved in one other litigation with a contractor over costs over the past several years.
The Great Barrington Fairgrounds, seen in September 1967. Decades of racing and agricultural shows gave way to a complicated future for the site, which is pending with no definitive plan for redevelopment.
Meanwhile, LSE is fighting with the state's Appellate Tax Board against the city's personal property tax assessment. Macel said the company's equipment at the site will be taxed about four times what other cities charge.
Elsbach says this tax rate hurts the LSE and the resulting litigation, as the income from the lease finances everything at the larger exhibition center. “It's very debilitating,” he said.
However, most of the site is exempt from property tax as it is a nonprofit organization, according to the appraisal office. The property is valued by the city at $ 1.1 million this year. According to assessor Ross Vivori, not all nonprofits are exempted. A nonprofit must submit a government tax form to the local appraiser each year stating that it qualifies for an exemption.