Gabrielle Gould: The upside of a new graduation date for UMass

  • Members of the audience wave to University of Massachusetts graduates at the start of commencement, Friday, May 10, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium. Gazette file photo

Thursday, April 28, 2022

I have spoken at length, on any and every platform I have been able to, of the extremely negative impact that Amherst, as a town, and especially a small business community, has experienced over the past two-plus years.

As you’ll recall, in mid-March 2020 the state implemented what was to be a three-week shelter-in-place order; in accordance, the schools, from pre-K through graduate, sent their students home. Amherst was left with less than half of its academic school year population and a lot of uncertainty.

Sadly, it took until the fall of 2021 for our schools to return to some semblance of on-campus norms and upon the return of UMass Amherst, we felt the air return to our downtown. The faculty, parents, friends, and staff and everyone who keeps that establishment running, and of course — the students — were finally back!

From where we stood — and to be clear we eat, live, and breathe in the heart of our downtown — the return has been literally business-saving, perhaps even life-saving in some instances of what it takes to own and operate a small business in today’s economy. While 2021-22 has not yet returned to the pre-pandemic economy, local businesses all report that they are close and are doing what it takes to thrive.

But even now, small businesses still face “pandemic backlash” hurdles: the rising costs of goods and the struggle to staff fully. Amherst is “returning:” it has taken an incredible amount of work, community support, a lifted mask mandate and high vaccination rates to get us where we are today. We continue to look for silver linings as we make lemonade out of some pretty heavy lemons.

Speaking of which, earlier this month, in my capacity as the Amherst Business Improvement District executive director, I received several phone calls regarding UMass changing its commencement to Memorial Day weekend in 2023. There was concern in these voices and conversations. I made a public statement to the Daily Hampshire Gazette expressing concerns over the decision and what it means to small businesses. My focus at that moment was the challenge of the weekend itself and the missed opportunity of having two large commencement weekends.

Change can be hard. And Amherst has faced a lot of change. But, as with many things, there are often hidden upsides. For me, it took a beautiful weekend and a step back to see what an additional two weeks of having UMass in full swing can mean to our downtown businesses.

Students, faculty, and staff all have the potential to bring much-needed commerce to our economy. As the temperature rises, our downtown fills. The Farmers Market opened last Saturday, outdoor dining is coming back and people are happy to pack their sweaters away. We become in the spring a flower popping, vibrant thriving downtown. An additional few weeks of students can be very good for our businesses.

So while I was, in my own words, “taken aback” by the announcement, I now see the glass as very much half full. While it is still true that we will have only one packed house weekend of restaurants and hotels, it is also true that we may enjoy an uptick of commerce having our students here with us as we all embrace spring with an effusion of love, happiness and relief.

In the next three months, Amherst will usher in over a dozen new businesses downtown, many of them new and exciting dining opportunities that will benefit greatly from a longer school year and a more robust spring and graduation.

I use the “#wegotthis” a lot in our social media posts and today I sign off on this op-ed with a very confident and excited #WEGOTTHIS.

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