Columnist Gabrielle Gould: Staying afloat: How Amherst is protecting its small businesses

  • Liz Rosenberg, owner of the TOY BOX in Amherst, wraps items she will deliver to homes for customers who ordered them over the phone while Rosenberg is closed due to the COVID-19 virus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Friday, May 29, 2020

Well, here we are in week 11 or so of being quarantined at home due to the novel coronavirus/COVID-19. Although pretty much everyone agrees that this is a huge deviation from our respective plans, I for one have at least developed a true and tremendous sense of gratitude that at least I live in Massachusetts with a governor who has clearly placed human life and well being over the economy.

I also write this with some understanding of the toll this shutdown has taken on those whose “stay at home” has not been in any way easy, sustainable or even sometimes safe.

My job as the director for the Amherst Downtown Business Improvement District is to support, sustain and grow Amherst businesses and those businesses in turn are the lifeblood of our town. Over the past 12 weeks, the BID, along with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, has worked tirelessly to protect those businesses and our neighbors that operate them.

We have had the ear of the Amherst Town Council at several public meetings regarding the future of the small and local businesses across Amherst. As organizations, the BID and Chamber have expanded their territory to create concepts to and with the council and town manager, as well as state authorities for a return to a new world and a new normal. At each of the meetings, we keep our focus on the immense toll the pandemic has taken on our businesses. We focus on the fact that Amherst now has one of the leading unemployment rates in Massachusetts, at almost 39%, and what we can do about that.

While it may seem to some that our focus is business over humanity, it is completely the opposite. Hampshire and Amherst colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have not had major layoffs to date; the economic driver that is higher education is as yet unchanged.

What has led us to nearly 39% unemployment stems largely from the full or partial closure of our remarkable Amherst businesses during this time. We are working with the council and state to create various options and solutions to bring these businesses relief and to facilitate a return within state guidelines.

Our organizations are also still very committed to the “Destination Amherst” plans that were in development prior to the pandemic. The goal of these plans is to create a town that is on its own a reason to frequent and visit — a town that happens to be wonderfully flanked by two esteemed colleges and one of the best universities in the country.

We do so because we understand what small business means to the greater community. Our greater Amherst businesses support social services; they are dependable employers, they create stability in our community and offer services for all socioeconomic sectors that define our community.

One of the things that COVID-19 has taught us is that we should and can be a community worth supporting and visiting in addition to the higher learning entities that flank our sides. When we created the Downtown Amherst Foundation as an “Arts & Culture” builder for our downtown and then shifted it to be a Relief and Resiliency Grant-Making Foundation, we did so to ensure that our community could continue to support the year-round residents, visiting families and students and various organizations including CHD, the Food Bank, the Survival Center, Craig’s Doors, and many more important organizations.

I ask everyone to take a moment to observe what our local Amherst businesses have accomplished during this insanity. The fact that restaurants struggling over the last three months have collectively served thousands of meals to the Essential Meals Project, the Feed the Front Lines Project and the continued “family meal” concept to the unemployed restaurant workers throughout our area is but one reflection of how important and crucial the survival of these businesses are.

Simultaneously, many businesses fret over how to keep their staff both employed and safe over their own fiscal viability. We have a plethora of thoughtful operators in this town who ask me to petition the governor not to simply “get us open,” but to reopen safely for the health of their employees and customers.

The BID and Chamber have been a voice for our local businesses for the last three months. Not a week has gone by that we have not been on calls or Zoom meetings with town and state officials, local legislators and even the governor. We have had the ability to work consistently with a number of state agencies to get answers, to share solutions, to drive legislation, and to have our unique area heard.

We have also raised $265,000 from 280 individual donors for the Relief and Resiliency fund and awarded close to $150,000 of that to sustain over 30 Amherst businesses. We will host the second round of microgrants in early June.

We share a continually updated list of who is open and how they are operating and are constantly sharing information as it becomes available with our community, our businesses, and our landlords. The tagline from the Amherst Chamber is “In Your Corner,” but I can say that the BID and Chamber could add “24/7” to that as I know our teams have been working nonstop.

We know we live in a remarkable, generous, capable and resilient community. We know we can return to whatever the new normal is with strength and support. We know that this will not be easy and that the solutions will be imperfect in an imperfect world, but we are here, we are listening and we are taking action to remain resilient, strong and a community that will and does give back on every level.

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