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Amherst Is Redefining the Phrase ‘College Town’Through most of its history, Tony Maroulis says, Amherst has been a college town, or, to be more precise, the quintessential college town.
He used that phrase to describe a community that not only hosts institutions of higher learning — in this case, UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College — but has a business community centered mostly on serving those who learn, teach, or are otherwise employed by those colleges and the university.
And while Amherst has certainly thrived in that role through the decades, said Maroulis, the long-time executive director of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, it has, in relatively recent times, become much than that.
Indeed, it has become a center of arts, culture, and fine dining, with several museums, arts-related programs and events, and eateries that draw people from across the region, not merely across town.
Meanwhile, it has also become — at least partly, because of all those amenities — a popular retirement spot, ranking high on many recent lists of places for people to live out their golden years.
And while it desires to remain all of the above, Amherst is aggressively seeking to add more lines to its résumé by becoming home to start-up companies and research and development (R&D) facilities, said Maroulis, noting that, instead of just hosting service businesses for area students and faculty, the community is taking steps toward becoming an incubator for businesses in several sectors, but especially the life sciences.
Optimism for such a development stems in large part from the emergence of new programs and tens of millions of dollars in research projects at the university, said Maroulis, who pointed specifically to the new, $157 million Life Science Laboratories, part of the Mass. Life Sciences Center (MLSC), and one of many potential catalysts for economic development in the town.
Through the MLSC, the Commonwealth is investing $1 billion over 10 years in the growth of the state’s life-sciences supercluster. At UMass Amherst, the MLSC includes such facilities as the Biosensors and Big Data Center, the Healthcare Informatics and Technology Information Center, and the Models to Medicine Center.
Research at each of those facilities, and others representing many other fields, could translate into startup companies and jobs, said Maroulis, adding that one of the challenges for the community is to build an infrastructure that can support these new enterprises.
Elaborating, he said this means everything from building facilities for people to start and grow businesses to creating new places for people to live, to enhancing prospects of doing business through technology.
And already there is progress on these various fronts.
It comes in the form of initiatives like Kendrick Place, a 44,000-square-foot, five-floor, LEED-certified, mixed-use residential, retail, and incubator space on a parcel on East Pleasant Street, not far from downtown. And also in the form of a business-improvement district (BID) that is adding members and broadening its reach, as well as what is being touted as the fastest and largest outdoor wi-fi network in the state (more on those later).
“It’s going to be a really exciting next 10 to 15 years here,” said Maroulis, summing up both what’s happening and what he and others expect to happen over that time span. “It’s important for Amherst to establish this area as an R&D center, not just for this community, but for the rest of the region.”
For this, the initial installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest focuses on a community that is looking to redefine the phrase ‘college town.’
Work in Progress
John Musante, Amherst’s town manager, noted that the community has four distinct villages.
The first is the downtown center, or central business district, and common area, which Maroulis reports has a vacancy rate of only 3%. Another is called North Amherst Village Center, which includes the Cowls Land Co. and Cowls Building Supply, one of the town’s major employers. Meanwhile, Pomeroy Village Center is on Route 116, and Atkins Corner consists of the new double-rotary intersection of Bay Road and Route 116.
Together, these villages give Amherst a diverse mix of businesses and residential experiences, he told BusinessWest, adding that, with each village, the town is looking for smart growth that facilitates those stated goals of bringing new businesses, more tourism dollars, and more opportunities on many different levels to the town.
One of the most exciting new developments for the town is Kendrick Place, said Musante, noting that it will hopefully build on the success of Boltwood Place, a 12-unit, market-rate housing initiative built in the heart of downtown that also features retail and restaurant space.
Like the Boltwood project, Maroulis said, Kendrick Place, which is being developed by Archipelago Investments, LLC, was conceived with the notion that professionals want to live in the central business district to take advantage of all it offers, but require attractive, market-rate facilities.
“Archipelago is doing with science what other developers in the area have done with their gut,” added Maroulis. “People know that this is how others want to live … within walking distance from the café or to their jobs. An interesting factoid is that only 30% of UMass professors and staff live in town, so we can do better.”
Meanwhile, Archipelago is moving forward with another intriguing development, Olympia Place, a 100,000-square-foot LEED-certified, 262-bed private dormitory on taxable land next to the UMass campus.
Slated to open in the fall of 2015, the project will feature suite-style dormitory apartments and bring what Archipelago calls “condo-level quality to a prime Amherst location.” With the Kendrick Place endeavor, it will bring more people — and vibrancy — to the downtown area.
“Both are the first of multiple efforts to bring sorely needed residential units and retail space to the northern end of the downtown,” said Musante. “And there’s an active effort to reach out to the university in particular to fill the Kendrick incubator space for some of this off-campus research and development.”
Housing and economic development will be the twin focal points of a survey that will be conducted as a joint initiative between the town and the university, said Maroulis, adding that a request for proposals will be issued shortly. The results of that survey will provide some direction about what kinds of development are needed and where, he said, adding that there is vast potential for new business growth, given the town’s high quality of life and the research taking place at the surrounding colleges.
“I don’t think we have even touched the tip of the iceberg,” he told BusinessWest.
The community has already seen a number of ventures open in Amherst or move there over the past several months, he said. This list includes B. Home, where eco-friendly meets beautiful home furnishings; All Things Local Cooperative Market, a new food and crafts marketplace; and HitPoint, a video-game company that employs 35, which recently relocated from Hatfield.
The HitPoint owners, Maroulis noted, intentionally chose the artsy Amherst lifestyle and the constant source of nearby R&D advancements and tech-savvy talent that the local schools produce, and he expects others to follow that lead.
Right Time, Right Place
While developers explore opportunities in downtown and other areas of the city, the town is broadening its economic-development infrastructure in an effort to make this a better community in which to live and work — and also visit.
Indeed, the BID, still one of only a handful in this region, was created in 2012, and the Regional Tourism Council of Hampshire County (RTC) was launched last May.
The Amherst chamber, which was instrumental in the creation of both agencies, can now shift some of its responsibilities to them, said Maroulis, and focus more time and resources on getting new businesses off the ground and to the next level.
“This is allowing us to focus over the next 12 months on business development and, specifically, small businesses to make sure they’re sustainable,” said Maroulis, noting that the ability to step aside a bit while still supporting the municipality in strengthening town-gown relationships is enabling every organization to put energy into their own projects.
The BID is a legislatively approved nonprofit that collects a nominal tax, currently totaling $275,000, from property owners in a designated area to cover marketing, property cleaning, and beautification, and transportation services to the downtown.
“Creation of the BID has given the local individual businesses the opportunity to join forces and do things they might like to do but, on their own, didn’t have the resources or personnel to do,” said Sarah La Cour, who became executive director last fall after serving as interim head.
Like other BIDs across the state, Amherst’s benefited from a recent change in the rules included in the original legislation that enabled formation of these entities, said La Cour, adding that the controversial opt-out clause has been removed, resulting in a spike in membership from 67 to more than 100.
“The BID’s biggest challenge now is to show those new BID members that had to become members the value in what we do with their money,” she added, noting that the staff consists of herself and a part-time bookkeeper, but assistance and talent also come from the 13-member board.
One of the major initiatives in the BID’s first year was the downtown trolley, a bus that looks like an old-fashioned trolley car. It is underwritten by the BID and is seeing great ridership, not only from students, but also among residents and tourists.
The trolley sees heightened use during special events and the monthly Art Walk, which has been continuous since 2007, said Maroulis. Coordinated by Michelle Raboin, owner of the Hope and Feathers Gallery on Main Street, the event showcases local talent at a variety of galleries, businesses, and restaurants from 5 to 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month.
Assistance with tourism-related initiatives is coming from the RTC, the tourism partnership that includes Amherst, Northampton, and Easthampton, which launched in May 2013, located online at www.visithampshirecounty.com, La Cour added. Museums like the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Center, and the Emily Dickinson Museum are being marketed with other cultural and tourism nonprofits and businesses.
“With more than eight museums that bring in a combined 120,000 people each year, noted Maroulis, “this is an amazingly rich place.”
Open for Business
That sentiment applies to much more than culture, he noted, adding that it also touches on everything from the scenery to the vast number of talented college students who currently call Amherst home and may want to make that arrangement permanent.
As he said, the quintessential college town is expanding the definition of that term, whih should make the next 10 to 15 years, and probably many more, a very exciting time.
Amherst at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 37,819 (2010); 34,874 (2000)
Area: 27.8 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: 20.39
Commercial Tax Rate: 20.39
Median Household Income: $40,017
Type of government: Select Board, Town Manager, Town Meeting
Largest employers: UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, Amherst College, Atkins Farm Market, Cowls Building Supply
(Latest information available)
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at email@example.com