Columnist Gabrielle Gould: Destination: Amherst; becoming our best

  • A file photo from a block party in downtown Amherst. SARAH GANZHORN

Monday, March 02, 2020

Let’s first consider North Adams. It was only in the 1980s that the historic town of North Adams fell, as most of the mill towns have, with empty storefronts and restaurants besotting its once-thriving Main Street. Having lost its sole economic driver, the old mill town had little to offer.

Certain ambitious groups saw an opportunity to stave off the seemingly inevitable death of North Adams with the outrageous idea of making it home to one the largest centers for contemporary visual arts and performing arts in the United States. In 1999, Mass MOCA opened the doors for modern and large-scale art exhibitions, live music venues and creative space for all aspects of art.

It is now a destination for 120,000 people a year with an annual economic impact of over $16 million, not to mention the immeasurable positive cultural impact for residents and schools within North Adams.

Look, North Adams did not wake up on Jan 1, 2000, with all its problems solved, but the steady growth and international respect that Mass MOCA garnered has absolutely been a game changer for this area of the Berkshires.

Back in Amherst, we thankfully do not have literal acres of commercial space sitting fallow in our downtown waiting to become revived space to solve our issues. We do not have the old mills of Easthampton coming online fast, or even the myriad commercial spaces and streets that Northampton boasts.

What we do have is a stunningly beautiful campus at Amherst College and a handsome retail corridor along South and North Pleasant tied together with an open “emerald necklace” of green spaces flanking the commercial areas. We are home to a top university hosting some of the greatest minds of the next generation. We have more than 40 fabulous restaurants, including Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian, Tibetan, Middle Eastern, barbecue and American, to list a few, and we are surrounded by the best of New England beauty to enjoy. We are already doing great, but we cannot squander what we have.

So how do we stay relevant and what are our biggest challenges as we look to Amherst 2020? In my opinion, we must first address zoning in downtown. Amherst deserves a uniform zoning of our downtown that will create much-needed space for residents and new retail and cultural possibilities.

Then there is parking. This remains the hot-button topic for downtown Amherst. A solution has been presented to the town by way of a privately funded garage on town land. This could be a winning solution for our area, but it needs to be championed as it moves forward.

The third challenge will be the beautification of our town center, also known as North Common. Come on, people — even in the height of green lush summer the heart of our downtown looks ignored and beaten down.

Plans are with our council to change this and bring downtown back to a beautiful, multifaceted hub of humanity. This endeavor will cost us a few parking spaces, but new parking spaces will also be created in the immediate area around the North Common. Imagine the most beautiful area in the heart of our downtown with tables to sit at, common spaces to share, all walkable and enjoyable for all. Put the cars on the sides of the streets and let us return the North Common to a greener, more usable space.

The final piece is the fourth pillar of our reinvigoration, and the thing that pulls everything else together: a new performing arts shell on the South Common. This version 2.0 comes to our town with a new nonprofit foundation that will raise the funds to build the structure, then donate it to the town along with a maintenance fund and a commitment to assist in programming theater, dance, music, art and more for at least two years.

This will ensure that we activate our downtown with an economic driver that will bring local and visiting dollars into our retail stores and restaurants and give back to our community with the immeasurable impact that countless studies have championed about what the arts can bring to all.

How do we bring Amherst to its best self, the destination that people drive to, where families continue to move to and raise their kids, and where their kids hope to return to some day? The answers are actually simple and yet they are grand. Each one compliments the other, creating a holistic vision for downtown.

The ideas laid out above have been brought to our 13 council members and the commitment is real. We are at a pivotal time where we collectively see the bigger picture. We have the energy and the boots on the ground to accomplish great things for our downtown.

We are at a place to create the change, to grow wisely and to work with and for a community that loves where we are, but acknowledges the need to move forward with bold strokes to remain a viable and sustainable downtown in 2020 and beyond.

Gabrielle Gould is the executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.