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Tony Maroulis: Taking lessons from young leaders

In the last few weeks I’ve met two people who remind me why my job is fun. These two young entrepreneurs give me real hope for the future of Amherst and our area, and came to the Chamber with questions and for advice. Katherine Bhaduri and Patrick Prendergast, both recent UMass graduates, see Amherst as a perfect place of possibility and potential.

Representing the Amherst Community Market, Katherine is one of four partners interested in creating a co-operative grocery. Over the past several months, the group has held open and public meetings to gauge interest in their project, while also doing the legwork to investigate available locations and square footage needs.

While Katherine and her partners are a ways away, they might be served by patience, which the 23-year-old teacher assures me she has. They are looking to raise the money necessary for a feasibility study over the next year. Their model is similar to Northampton’s River Valley Market, which took nearly a decade to get off the ground.

The most impressive takeaway that I got from our meeting was that Katherine had read the town’s Master Plan, which identified businesses like a downtown grocery as a community need.

For years in this space, in the Chamber’s messaging and in thousands of conversations with residents and business owners, I’ve talked about the potential of Amherst. Sometimes I must sound like a broken record. The Master Plan is a testament to hard work and smart ideas.

I see Amherst as a complete community. We have thousands of acres of farmland and open space, a downtown and commercial districts near population centers that can absorb growth and institutions that provide economic stability. We are growing wine here, and food. We have people and ideas. We are an interesting and contained 27.5 square miles. We’re just scratching the surface on what we can be.

And yet, I think we have a perception problem. Which is how Patrick Prendergast and I got to talking.

An editor and writer for a new print magazine, Pioneer, Patrick called to interview me about Amherst’s interesting small businesses like Mystery Train Records, Amherst Typewriter, and DVDen. This led to a long conversation about the town’s makeup and, yes, its potential.

Maybe it was just me, but by the conclusion of spring Town Meeting, I was spent. The last few years of arguing for what I and many considered progressive and transformative zoning changes in the proposed Gateway district and in North and South Amherst seemed all for naught. Amherst’s Master Plan seemed forever away from implementation, doomed to arguments about student housing and behavior.

Patrick shared the concerns of many residents about student housing in residential neighborhoods, and asked a series of questions about the difficulties of creating appropriate and well-located housing for students and young professionals. He was also concerned about post-graduate opportunities for his age group. He noted that he wasn’t the only person he knew who was interested in living in the Valley, and in Amherst specifically.

The year 2012 saw young leaders emerge in the Valley. In Holyoke, Mayor Alex Morse has been a change agent for his community, providing hope and new ideas to his city. In Amherst, our own Alex Krogh-Grabbe was named the first executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.

Both Alexes returned to their hometowns to make a difference and they are both well on their way.

These are two young leaders among scores of young entrepreneurs and difference-makers here in the Valley, like Patrick and Katherine. They are interested in making Amherst and the Valley work, and want to be part of the solution. You can bet I’ll stay in touch with both of these folks, to help them, if I can.

But I suspect I’ll learn something from their enthusiasm and approach, and I look forward to that.

Tony Maroulis is executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

PULL

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