Anyone who has spent time in Amherst recognizes the town’s enviable mix of cultural institutions, restaurants, academic energy — more than 33,000 students attend UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College — and open space.
But town officials know they need to do more than tout those offerings; they need to leverage them to create the kind of community where college graduates will want to stay, and where families and businesses will want to locate.
A number of recent developments aim to meet that need. For example, Archipelago Investments, LLC of Amherst is building One East Pleasant, a mixed-use project featuring 135 residential units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space, with plans for the building to be completed and occupied by the fall.
Meanwhile, W.D. Cowls Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Communities are laying the groundwork for North Square at the Mill District, another mixed-use development in North Amherst, which will feature 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space. Construction on the project, which tapped into local tax-increment financing, is set to begin this spring.
Archipelago is also developing a third mixed-use project for the downtown area, at 26 Spring St., which will feature 38 residential units and 1,000 square feet of commercial space. That was recently permitted, as was Aspen Heights, on Route 9 at the former Amherst Motel site, where Breck Group Amherst Massachusetts LP plans a residential development that will include 115 units, 16 of them qualifying as affordable housing.
“There is a master plan which has focused development on the village centers, while taking tangible steps to preserve open space,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman, noting that municipal leaders want new development to occur downtown, in the North Amherst Village Center, in South Amherst, and East Amherst so the town can preserve existing neighborhoods and open space.
Amherst at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1759
Area: 27.7 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $21.14
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.14
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Select Board, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available
“Things are happening on campus, too,” said Geoff Kravitz, Amhert’s Economic Development director. “UMass opened its design building, they’re renovating Isenberg School of Management, and Amherst College is doing a big, new, quarter-billion science center.”
“That’s an interesting one,” Bockelman said of the latter. “At one point, they were saying 200 tradespeople were coming into town every day to work on one building. These sorts of investments from the colleges and university are making a spillover effect on the town. Clearly, as these institutions grow, it benefits the town.”
Meanwhile, the University/Town of Amherst Collaborative has been working since 2015 to create better connections between UMass and the town, from addressing student housing needs to leveraging opportunities related to university research, entrepreneurship opportunities, cultural opportunities, and retention of graduates.
It’s a town, in short, that is ripe for opportunities that spring out of such connections — and a place whose cultural profile makes it a true destination for visitors and transplants alike.
Speaking of Culture
The Amherst Central Cultural District is another connection-maker of sorts, a state designation issued in 2016 that aims to leverage the offerings of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jones Library, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Museum at Hampshire College, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and other cultural institutions.
“They can cross-promote; for example, the Emily Dickinson Museum has a poetry week, and Amherst College has a literary festival,” Kravitz said, adding that the Business Improvement District also presents an arts festival downtown that brings together artists of all kinds who normally work independently. “We have a lot of people who do their artwork at home, and this gets them out of the woodwork and shows a strong artistic presence downtown.”
Meanwhile, the Amherst WinterFest, an array of cultural and recreational offerings slated for Feb. 3-10, has been expanded this year from a weekend to a full week, due to popular demand.
The downtown district continues to attract new businesses — the Red Door Salon, Bart’s Ice Cream, and Ichiban are a few recent notables — but with a low vacancy rate, growth is limited until those mixed-use developments come online. And the town has streamlined its downtown parking options as well, making it easier for people to pay by phone, for instance, and issued maps showing where visitors can find parking, bathrooms, and other amenities.
Through it all, officials hope the new mixed-use developments downtown create more business growth, energy, and tourism.
“We’re looking to fill that commercial space, and that requires breaking out the crystal ball and looking into the future,” Kravitz said. Specifically, the down has engaged with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to develop an economic-development plan which will examine the market, local economic indicators, and the town’s so-called SWOT — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats — to determine what types of businesses may be most successful, including but possibly going beyond the restaurants, retail, and entertainment options that have long thrived downtown.
As for housing, the new residential developments are welcome, as there hasn’t been much residential development over the previous couple decades, Bockelman said, noting that a 2015 study determined that Amherst could use some 4,000 more units. “People have been trying to fill that gap.”
But young people aren’t the only ones interested in the Amherst lifestyle. “Older people are retiring to college towns; it’s very attractive, between the cultural benefits and the 80 miles of hiking trails here and the access to nature,” he added, referring to the K.C. Trail, the Robert Frost Trail, and the Norwottuck Rail Trail. “Not everyone is going to Florida to retire. Some people grew up here and want to stay here; they’re not fleeing to warmer climes.”
The Kayon Accelerator, which opened last year on the second floor of the AmherstWorks co-working space downtown, can play a role in retaining people who grew upin Amherst and went to college here, Kravitz said, by attracting people trying to turn innovative ideas into businesses and may be looking for venture capital and other resources.
“If they like the lifestyle here, why not stay where they have friends and have a life already?” he said. “That’s one thing we’re trying to build — that 22-to-44 age group, people starting their families here. That’s really valuable to us.”
There is one other economic-development opportunity that towns have grappled with in myriad ways, but that Amherst is embracing. That’s the marijuana trade — both medicinal and recreational. Considering that the town’s voters favored the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational pot by a 3-to-1 margin, officials here are taking seriously how best to respect their wishes while emphasizing safe use of marijuana.
“This recreational use, or adult use, is something our residents want to see, and even if the town doesn’t think it’s a good idea, it’s going to have an impact on the town anyway, so it’s a good idea to have the businesses located here so we can take advantage of the tax revenue, and do it in a safe, responsible manner,” Kravitz said.
However, with a population that’s constantly changing — thousands of freshmen report to UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College each fall — the town is planning a significant educational component as well. It has also passed a number of marijuana-related regulations, including a 3% local-option sales tax, a ban on public consumption, and capping at eight the number of recreational-marijuana establishments in town.
“We thought that would create enough competition without overwhelming them,” Kravitz said. “The town is now looking at zoning that will help refine that.”
It’s just one more way a town with much to offer residents and businesses is working to weave those amenities into a tapestry that keeps people coming — whether for school, to live, or simply to enjoy the scene.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org