The first in a series of articles exploring economic development in West County, which the Montague Reporter is publishing in partnership with The Shoestring.
By Sarah Robertson
CHARLEMONT – The fate of a historic tavern in the center of town is uncertain as its longtime owner, Charlotte Dewey, fights to retain ownership of the building and prevent its demolition.
First opened in 1787, the Charlemont Inn served as a stagecoach stop, hotel, tavern and meeting space for travellers and locals alike. Hunters enjoyed hot meals and a full bar during the winter months, while paddlers and hikers could spend a night on their way to their next adventure before the Inn closed in 2011.
“Charlemont will never be the town it can be if that place doesn’t look good,” said Jon Schaefer, owner of the Berkshire East Mountain Resort. “There’s really no social, central location for a Charlemont resident.”
Most of Charlemont’s town center is on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Inn, some churches, the town hall, and a two-story schoolhouse. Important historical figures and celebrities have stayed at the Inn, including Mark Twain, Calvin Coolidge, Benedict Arnold, and a handful of friendly ghosts that decided to stay.
For Charlotte Dewey, the fight to keep the Inn alive is deeply personal. Her mother and sister lived there in the 1970s, when there was an artists’ studio in the loft of the barn. Jean Dewey, Charlotte’s mother, is a decorative artist well known in the area that hand painted floral designs on some of the Inn’s bedroom walls.
Dewey took over the Inn in 1983, living on the third floor and overseeing everything from food service to bed sheets. During that time she also served as town moderator – she is currently seeking reelection – and would sometimes open the tavern as a meeting space, free of charge, for town residents to discuss the issues.
The Charlemont Inn has a history of financial insecurity, evidenced by the numerous times the business fell behind on tax payments in the 1960s. The Inn experienced a boom through the 1980s and 1990s as Charlemont grew as a mecca for outdoor recreation, but fell off after 9/11.
Then, a perfect storm of bad luck – the death of Dewey’s business partner, who held the Inn’s mortgage; the 2008 housing crisis; and Hurricane Irene, which hit just before the 2011 foliage season – led her to close the Inn to customers in December 2011. The Inn has stayed closed ever since.
“It is a very important cultural resource for our town,” said Bambi Miller, a member of the historical commission. “We’re very, very deeply concerned about keeping its sense of integrity as an inn and trying to protect it. We’re going to do everything that we can.”
Making Ends Meet
After the Inn closed, Dewey handed the keys over to the Charlemont sewer district, which had foreclosed on the property over unpaid sewer taxes, evicting her from her longtime home.
“It was probably one of the hardest times of my life,” Dewey said. “I couldn’t stand it. I moved, but I had to keep fighting for it.”
She appealed the taking in land court, and was able to pay down the debt after her father passed away and left her with just enough money. But when she regained control of the building in August 2012, she found it had been vandalized: copper plumbing pipes in the basement had been ripped out, cut into pieces, and collected in trash cans. There was no sign of forced entry, and the police found no suspects.
“They didn’t succeed in taking it all, but they did a number on the building by ripping it all out,” said Bill Coli, a member of the town’s historical commission.
Dewey never received any compensation for the damage done to the Inn’s plumbing, and replacing the pipes cost her nearly $30,000. “I really didn’t want to sue,” she said. “Why sue your own town when you want to go back there and do business? That is not what you want to do!”
The attempted burglary was a first for Dewey, who had been struggling to keep the Inn financially solvent for years. Debts continued to accrue; a January 2013 tax lien notice shows that at one point Dewey’s business, Mohawk Trail Hospitality Inc, owed $81,718 in state taxes. She relied on friends, inheritance, and retirement savings to finance the building’s ongoing maintenance. Today she works as a food services director for Bard College, two hours from Charlemont, to make ends meet.
Between ongoing renovations, mounting bills, late fees and interest payments, Dewey says she has spent nearly $300,000 to date trying to reopen her business. At one point, she tried to start a nonprofit to ensure the future preservation of the Inn, and rallied community support by launching a GoFundMe campaign. So far, the campaign has raised $3,620 of an initial $40,000 goal – but the Inn still needs well over one million dollars in work.
Unfit For Habitation
In June 2015, a newly convened “abandoned and derelict properties task force” identified the Inn as a priority project for the town. According to meeting minutes, former regional health agent Glen Ayers said that any action taken by an owner to fix an aging building prior to the town repossessing it would make the most financial sense.
In November of that year, the Charlemont board of health condemned the Inn, which had by then been closed to the public for four years, for multiple health and safety hazards. A complaint by a neighbor prompted the inspection, according to board of health member Doug Telling.
Handwritten comments on Ayers’ health inspection report said things like “mold so bad I could not stay in the room long enough to look around” and “looks like a bomb went off inside.” Ayers reported holes in the floor, stripped live wires, and more mold in the basement, but Dewey claims the report is exaggerated. She has since replaced portions of the damaged drywall and ceilings, replaced the leaking roof, installed a new heating system, and hired a contractor to perform air quality tests for mold, which came back clean.
During a public hearing on the condemnation order, board of health members discussed the possibility of boarding up the Inn to prevent potential vandalism or arson. Dewey argued that the only vandalism to the Inn occurred during the eight months when the sewer commission held the keys to the property, and she presented over a dozen images of other blighted or abandoned buildings in Charlemont that have not received the same level of scrutiny.
Signs posted on the exterior doors today still deem the building “unfit for human habitation.” In order to meet modern health and safety standards, Dewey was told the building must undergo more expensive renovations, including a fire sprinkler system with an independent cistern, widened hallways, ramps and bathrooms to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, as well as new plumbing, flooring, and electrical work.
According to project estimates Dewey provided the town in 2016, the sprinkler system alone would cost her about $700,000. Revamping the entire building, she said, would cost about $2.46 million. Dewey says her plan is to raise the money necessary to finish and open the first floor tavern – about $180,000 – and then finance repairs to the second floor through those profits, loans, or future grants.
But each time Dewey thinks she’s close to opening the Inn, she says, another problem arises.
The town asked Dewey to meet deadlines for the repairs voluntarily, but when work went undone, they imposed stricter deadlines and formalized the demands in writing. Mold abatement was a specific concern. Dewey said that additional scrutiny of the condition of an adjacent barn and residential home on the property delayed her progress.
Eventually, the town looked to a state program called receivership to remedy the situation. Under the program, a court-appointed contractor called a “receiver” redevelops an abandoned property up to habitable standards, and is awarded a lien against the building to recoup the project’s costs. Receivership programs took off in Massachusetts around 2010 as part of then-Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which targeted blighted and abandoned properties.
Telling said the town considered two potential receivers, one local and one not. The Shelburne Falls Independent reported in March 2017 that developer Robert Obear of Montague was being considered as a potential receiver. Another potential receiver, Alan Hope of Charles Hope Companies in North Andover, submitted a preliminary assessment of the property in February.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done,” Hope said of the Inn. “I really felt that Charlotte had bent over backwards in doing what she was asked to do.”
The town has delayed a decision on receivership three times now, most recently pushing back an April 19 court hearing until July. If a receiver fixes the Inn, it would be sold at auction to recoup renovation costs and any taxes owed on the building. In theory, Dewey would have an opportunity to buy back the Inn at auction, but likely at a steep markup. She might be open to the idea of managing the Inn, she said, if a receiver financed the repairs and let her stay.
On advice from her attorney Mark Tanner, Dewey has stopped paying for any taxes or renovations on the building until she knows whether she will lose it to a receiver.
“I don’t think the town deserves to get it for nothing,” Dewey said. She said she believes the town is, for some reason, trying to force her to give up the Inn.
The town was unsuccessful in finding a receiver by the April 19 deadline, according to Tanner. “There wasn’t a receiver appointed,” board of health member Telling explained. “What the court said was we could – a receiver could be appointed.”
According to Tanner, at this point, the town is preparing to tear down the Inn. “I think the issue was the cost to do the rehab that the town wants done just makes the whole project economically unviable,” he said, later writing to clarify: “The town indicated they are not going forward with their application for a receiver and will be filing paperwork to demolish the building.”
At this point, the town can seek permission from the county housing court to raze the property on the grounds that it is a health hazard. Alternately, the town could seek in land court to repossess the Inn for taxes owed, then demolish it, though Dewey herself says she has the money to pay it.
Members of the historical commission say they are worried about the weak safeguards in place to protect historic buildings in town, and say they wish they were consulted during the decision-making process. “There’s nothing but rumor going on now,” Bill Coli said.
Because the town does not have a demolition delay bylaw, Coli added, there can be little to no warning before a historic building is to be torn down. “We will do everything in our power,” he said, “and I admit we don’t have much power.”
“The town hasn’t been really reaching out to us and letting us be part of the conversation with what goes on,” Bambi Miller said. “Everybody wants to see it open. Nobody wants to see it torn down…. I would be appalled to see it knocked down and turned into a parking lot.”
In Part II: The other side of the coin.
Sarah Robertson is a freelance journalist.