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Amherst mulls plans for reopening local economy

  • A view of Main Street in downtown Amherst. Proprietors hope the town keeps parking free for a while GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Thursday, May 07, 2020

AMHERST — Even with uncertainty about how soon the economy can safely reopen and whether college students will be returning in the fall, business leaders in Amherst are setting the stage for getting restaurant and shop owners back on their feet.

In the “Creating a Resilient Amherst” plan, Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould, executive directors of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and Amherst Business Improvement District, respectively, told the Town Council on Monday that they envision restoring and restructuring Amherst’s commerce to a year-round economy following the decimation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have an opportunity to look at things a little differently,” Pazmany said.

The business community, Pazmany said, would like to work collaboratively with the town to create an environment in which restaurateurs and retailers not only survive this crisis but thrive in the future, though strategies that may include revised municipal policies, procedures and practices that benefit commercial interests, customers and the town.

Pain caused by the ongoing pandemic is reflected in a survey that the typical locally owned business is losing $56,000 in revenue per month, and 61% of these same businesses laid off or furloughed at least one employee. “That’s a huge economic hit,” Pazmany said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he is having weekly conversations with businesspeople so that Amherst can reopen in a safe manner when the state of emergency in Massachusetts, which extends through at least May 18, is lifted.

“We want to be ready to move when the governor’s order expires,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman said some of the proposals from the business groups can be done administratively, such as those related to permitting guidelines, while others, such as changing zoning, would require formal action by the Town Council.

One part of the plan is to make sure the community is welcoming and safe for visitors. That means having sidewalks in good repair and power washed and having directional signs so people can easily navigate the town.

For buy-in from town officials, Pazmany said the hope is to continue the free parking that has been in place during the state of emergency, keeping parking free for 30 to 45 days following this, and then even after that time period allowing for one- and two-hour free parking.

The business leaders may also ask to use public space, roads, sidewalks and common areas that could enable physical distancing, and have more outdoor dining options during nice weather. This could be done through closing North Pleasant Street from Amity Street to Kellogg Avenue to vehicles on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as is done during the annual Celebrate Amherst Block Party.

Other ideas include expediting local permitting, eliminating the Design Review Board and replacing it with so-called form-based code, using site plan review in place of special permitting, and simplifying and clarifying zoning bylaws.

Gould advocated for the Destination Amherst plan to continue, even as the BID and Chamber have transitioned the Downtown Foundation that aimed to raise money for projects such as a band shell on the Town Common and a new parking garage to an Amherst-wide relief and resiliency micro-grant program for small business owners.