The old grandstand at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds is adorned with graffiti. Photo: Terry Cowgill
GREAT (BA)RRINGTON — A local couple has offered to purchase the derelict Great Barrington Fairgrounds and donate a portion of it back to the town for possible use as park space. Town Manager Mark Pruhenski disclosed the offer at Monday’s selectboard meeting.
Pruhenski said Shoval Enterprises Inc. has offered to purchase the historic property at 659 Main Street and donate 15–20 acres at the rear of the property back to the town of Great Barrington.
Possible uses include those envisioned by the board when selectboard member Bill Cooke suggested the town look into purchasing the property in January: “a trail connector, for use as a dog park, picnic space, ice skating, whatever we would like to use that space for,” Pruhenski told the board.
But, in January, Pruhenski said the directors of the nonprofit that owns the fairgrounds had not responded to his request to talk or meet with him, prompting selectboard chair Steve Bannon to complain that fairground owners Bart and Janet Elsbach were being “disrespectful.” For their part, the Elsbachs responded with the letter to The Edge disputing the town’s characterization of their actions at the property and their response to the town.
See video below of the April 12 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting. Fast forward to 7:45 for the segment on the fairgrounds:
“They’re also offering to clean up the property and develop the frontage into some form of mixed use — meaning small retail, housing — something along those lines,” Pruhenski said of the Shovals.
Shoval Enterprises is based in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Its officers are Judd and Susan Shoval, according to the Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s office. The Shovals have owned a home at 160 Castle Hill Avenue since 2017, according to real estate records.
Judd Shoval is the chair and founder of Shoval Enterprises, “a family office engaged in various investment activities with an emphasis on financial services, clean/green energy, and real estate investments and management,” the Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts said in a news release in 2018 when Shoval was appointed to its board of directors.
Shoval is past CEO of First Peoples National Bank, currently owned by Wells Fargo & Company. He has been involved with various nonprofit organizations, including serving on the board and investment committee of King’s College, as well as past tenures in similar capacities with a hospital system, a college preparatory school, and religious organizations, the Mahaiwe said. Shoval is also co-founder, past director and CEO of GUARD Insurance Companies, which was sold in 2012 to Berkshire Hathaway for $221 million.
The Shovals are perhaps best known locally for recently contributing $45,000 for new playground equipment to be placed in the Lake Mansfield Recreation Area. The Shovals could not be reached for comment.
“Of course, all of that would have to be approved through the special permit process, but that offer is on the table and my hope is that we can work something out with the fairgrounds board so that that property benefits everyone in town,” Pruhenski added, referring to the Shovals’ plans.
“Mark, I just wanted to thank you for your continuing efforts in talking to the board of fairgrounds,” selectboard member Leigh Davis said. “I hope that, with this information, they are at least willing to speak with us.”
Sterling Suffolk Racecourse had reached a lease agreement in 2018 with the Elsbachs to bring thoroughbred racing back to the fairgrounds in the months of September and October, with the goal of starting in 2020. That proposal was stalled — perhaps fatally — by local opposition.
Davis was a major opponent of the proposal and traveled to Boston in an effort to convince the state legislature to approve a so-called home-rule petition that would require a ballot vote by town residents if any entity wanted to run a horse-racing operation, as was done previously for decades at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds.
“I have been in touch with the Elsbachs since our last meeting and I hope that we will continue to communicate and move this forward,” Pruhenski added.
The Elsbachs bought the 41-acre fairgrounds site across the street from the Big Y Plaza in December 2012 from a Connecticut-based hedge fund for $815,000. According to the assessor card for 659 Main Street, the property is assessed by the town for tax purposes at slightly more than $1.1 million.
After a tornado ripped through the area on Memorial Day in 1995, many of the structures sustained heavy damage. Since then, proposals to redevelop the property, including a proposal for a 100-room hotel and convention center more than 10 years ago, had been unsuccessful before the Elsbachs acquired it after foreclosure.
Bart and Janet Elsbach responded to the Edge’s questions with a brief statement: “We remain as committed as ever to finding a way to balance the delicate ecology of the fairgrounds property with beneficial community use, with partners who share those priorities.”