AMHERST — Beginning in the 1960s, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce information booth was the main source for visitors to learn about the town, with hundreds of people stopping by each year to get information about local destinations and events.
Since 2006, following the end of the booth’s operations earlier in the 21st century and the small building’s eventual removal from the Town Common in 2014, people have been able to come to the chamber’s offices in the Amherst Cinema building on Amity Street on weekdays to get directions, pick up brochures on area attractions and get advice about restaurants.
With the new year, though, a more visible and more regularly staffed site opened, as the Visitor Information Center, a joint venture for the Amherst Business Improvement District and the chamber, debuted Tuesday at 35 South Pleasant St.
“This is really exciting for the town and the area,” said Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst BID, who anticipates the visitors center will broaden and deepen the business community’s reach. “Having an actual visitors center where people can come in and talk, that’s a whole different thing.”
Chamber Executive Director Tim O’Brien said even in the age of computers and smartphones, travelers want to speak to people who are familiar with the community and can provide knowledge that can’t be obtained digitally.
Prospective students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College, as well as their families, can use the visitors center as a way to learn about the town. “They’ll be checking out the vibe for what’s going on outside school,” O’Brien said.
Though the Amherst BID has efforts to reach out to parents of students, including regularly ferrying them around downtown on its trolley during the summer, there was no place visitors could go to learn more about Amherst on Saturdays and Sundays.
“The big gap was not having open hours for access to information for weekends,” la Cour said.
“It’s going to be very handy,” la Cour said. “In general, they don’t know what they want to do.”
O’Brien said a new phenomenon is for parents of students to spend three or four days visiting their children and using what he refers to as a “hub and spoke” approach.
“This will be their hub and then they’ll spoke out,” O’Brien said. “As an information center, we can get them oriented beyond town.”
Business leaders had been discussing the need and identified the vacant artALIVE site, a location between the most visible parking lots on Main and Spring streets, and also near where Peter Pan buses pick up and drop off passengers.
The chamber and Amherst BID took over a lease on the space owned by Jeff Brown, in October, and developer Barry Roberts, oversaw the renovating work, which included removing walls, installing new floors and rewiring
The center first welcomed people through the door during the Merry Maple celebration in early December, serving cookies and hot chocolate.
When complete, the center will have a seating area where people can relax and use their smartphones to access the town’s wi-fi, pick out brochures from a large rack for places such as the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, or take walking tours of downtown Amherst. About 80 percent of the items will focus on what to do in Amherst, but regional destinations, such as the Yankee Candle flagship store in South Deerfield, will also be displayed.
La Cour said brochures continue to be used by some. “I think people do still like that,” la Cour said.
The opening of the visitors center also comes at a time shortly after the town center was designated a cultural district, which could bring in more visitors. The BID is overseeing the cultural district.
Though the center doesn’t have public bathrooms, and thus won’t be considered a welcoming center, O’Brien and la Cour are pleased with getting it ready.
“It’s certainly better than what we had before, which was next to nothing,” O’Brien said. “This is more business-like, a more attractive space.”
Both entities will use the center as their main office, with the chamber relinquishing its Amity Street location and allowing Amherst Coffee to expand. The BID will keep its second-floor office, in a nearby building on South Pleasant Street, for the next year, la Cour said, and then decide whether to give up that site.
The center will rely on college student interns and may also have high school students who may be aspiring to a career in business. Both will be needed to keep the site open seven days a week, la Cour said.
“The goal is to be staffed as much as possible,” O’Brien said.
Even when closed, there will be television screens that will be programmed to showcase what O’Brien calls “beauty shots” of the area, as well as in photos and words information about happenings, so people peering into the center’s windows during the evening can be inspired.
Amherst Economic Development Director Geoffrey Kravitz said he anticipates the visitors center being a boon.
“Given the number of cultural attractions, having a central location in downtown where people can find more things to do is great,” Kravitz said.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.