At Amherst forum, leaders discuss challenges to building up town’s economy

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 07, 2018

AMHERST — Commercial spinoffs and startup companies associated with the University of Massachusetts, advocacy from the Amherst Business Improvement District and engaged and well-educated residents can be the foundation for the town’s future economy.

“This all translates into a strong market for goods and services,” said Lori Tanner, senior economic development policy analyst for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

At an economic development forum May 31 at Town Hall, which drew about 30 residents, business owners and town officials, Tanner said that downtown Amherst could accommodate five or six new retail stores, as well as businesses that focus on educational support products and agricultural products.

But at the same time, she said, complicated zoning has stymied the opportunities to develop mixed-use buildings for offices and retail, and creation of laboratory space in other buildings, and Amherst continues to face challenges from losing a significant part of the population for the summer months.

Some of those in attendance expressed optimism that a change in the form of government to a 13-member Town Council later this year will lead to more focus on implementing elements of the master plan that promotes development in the commercial core and the village centers.

Niels la Cour, a former planner for the town, said the problem isn’t that Amherst isn’t ready to have more mixed-use buildings, but rather that it has been suppressing construction, including housing production, for 40 years.

“I would argue there’s plenty of vision,” la Cour said. “It’s a matter of allowing it to happen, and that’s where we get back to zoning.”

Curt Shumway, president of the Hampshire Hospitality Group, said even if development is made easier in Amherst, long-term lease commitments are needed to construct buildings for offices and other commercial enterprises.

“Office is very difficult to develop compared to residential,” Shumway said.

Business management consultant Ira Bryck of Strong Street, though, said he is concerned that much of the new building downtown is just to house students, and not the young families and young professionals needed to sustain a year-round economy.

Connie Gillen of Sunset Avenue, who runs Sunset Farm, said friends who own businesses in town tell her that customers dry up in the summer and January, when UMass and the colleges are out of session.

“The problem is not having stable year-round population,” Gillen said.

Tanner said there are several other concerns, including no local business support organization to help startups, an Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce working with no staff and continued high property taxes.

She also pointed to the Kayon Accelerator, which was created in late 2016 to develop local startup companies in Amherst and keep them in town, not succeeding.

“It was probably not its time,” Tanner said.

Other problems Tanner identified include insufficient marketing budgets, lack of evening activities, other than dining, and perceived lack of parking.

Still, Economic Development Director Geoff Kravitz said there should be optimism.

“I think there’s more we can do around tourism and entertainment,” Kravitz said.

If more housing comes online, that will boost retail stores and restaurants.

“More people living here year-round the stronger businesses can be, whether they’re students or not,” Kravitz said.

Others offered thoughts about what is missing. One is a downtown grocery store that people can walk to. Alex Kent, board president for the Amherst Food Co-op, said his organization is trying to change this.

Kelly Erwin of Applewood Lane said she worries about letting roads and sidewalks deteriorate, which gives a bad image to those visiting Amherst.

Jennifer Page of Potwine Lane said development may not be benefiting all residents, including low and moderate income, and that the new projects are coming at the expense of a population that is largely invisible.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.