Guest columnist Kristin Leutz: Say no to veto culture

  • People walk in downtown Amherst in January. AP

Thursday, April 15, 2021

It is a cute saying that the only thing silent in Amherst is the “H,” but at this point, this charming indicator of quirky New England culture has grown toxic.

At every turn, our town cannot seem to avoid bitter debates over investments in our collective future. We cannot pretend that the battle over the school projects and the tenor surrounding Town Meeting didn’t exact a price in our town psyche. Both sides left with wounds. When voters elected a Town Council to clear the way for a functioning democracy, many of us had hopes that our aging town resources might finally be updated so every resident could benefit from excellent facilities.

Now we face opponents of projects like the library and development resorting to filibuster-like tactics to gum up the works of the council. This is self-defeating. Forced technicalities that delay and encourage more nasty debate might be allowed in our town charter, but they fan the flames of a poisonous veto culture that has held the town back for years. While we argue with neighbors, Amherst has failed to build much of anything new, even in these times where public stimulus and historically low interest rates make it more attainable.

It is time to question those who seek to undermine projects approved by Town Council. Their shifting opinions are ironic. Those who helped defeat a school proposal that would have leveraged over $30 million in public funds now say the library cost will prevent us from funding school renovations. It is not OK to say you don’t want “student slums” or enclaves and at the same time rally against students renting residential houses. While it is reasonable to reject high taxes, it is less reasonable to at the same time object to the council’s approach to zoning that could bring more dense development downtown, lifting our revenues.

The future could be stronger for more Amherst residents if we lay out the welcome mat. Put down your petition pen and ask how could you be a part of aligning our town and gown to be an economic driver so we can afford nice things without higher residential taxes. Meet with developers — they are local folks in most cases. Talk to our BID and Chamber staff who are stellar. Offer up your experiences and connections to collaborate for our economy and innovation ecosystem.

Rather than debate what constitutes an ugly building, host conversations about what our future “Main Street” will look like and who will be there doing what type of work. The Brookings Institute has found that “well-developed, but not well-diversified economies like college towns tend to grow by either growing an existing industry or creating entirely new industries.” Data from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation indicates that “In 20+ years, a majority of people living in communities around universities will be made up of people of color.” Are we ready to serve their needs and innovate our economy?

Our students and young workers may not be ready to buy a house on the lovely tree-lined streets we are so proud of. But they are more likely now than ever before to get a remote job, or if East-West rail happens, to live here and work away. With that salary, they could choose to stay here while they rent one of those nicer downtown apartments someone might deem ugly but that they might find appealing. They would become a worthy source of revenue both from their housing income and as consumers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and educated workers - the very people who would use a shiny new library to launch a business or write the next great American novel.

This will only happen if we have the future in mind. People will avoid Amherst not because of taxes, but because this place seems really toxic and fails to creatively fund good resources. The only thing we really need a moratorium on here in the town of Amherst is the veto culture that has damaged our town’s spirit.

Kristin Leutz works both locally and nationally to promote equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems and economic development. She is a mom of ARHS students and a long-time Amherst resident.