Features

Community Profile: Amherst

More Than a College Town
Town Manager Laurence Shaffer

Town Manager Laurence Shaffer says Amherst has some insulation against the recession.

Tourists, Retirees, Even Telecommuters Keep Businesses Hopping

Laurence Shaffer says no community, like no company of business sector, is truly recession-proof.

Every city and town is feeling the effects of the current downturn, said Amherst’s town manager, and his is certainly no exception. But this college town that has evolved into so much more over the past few decades has what Shaffer calls more “insulation” than most.

It comes from the colleges, obviously, especially UMass Amherst with its more than 5,000 employees and 20,000 students, but also from Amherst College and Hampshire College. However, insulation also comes from the community’s status as a tourist destination, with year-round traffic visiting a host of museums, restaurants, and other attractions. And another buffer has emerged from Amherst’s growing reputation as a retirement destination.

Indeed, publications such as U.S. News and World Report have listed the town as one of the proverbial ‘best places to retire to’ — a achievement that results from many of those aforementioned attributes.

All this makes Amherst an attractive location for businesses across a number of sectors, said Shaffer, adding that, as the town celebrates its 250th anniversary, it is also celebrating the fact that it has become a local and regional economic engine, one that continues to add horsepower.

“Many communities have to create excitement and buzz to get people there,” he said. “We already have it.”

In this issue, BusinessWest examines the buzz that is Amherst, and how this community of 35,000 continues to build on those layers of insulation.

A Class Act

As they talked about Amherst and its many attributes, Shaffer and Tony Maroulis, director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said they combine to make the town a true destination — for students, professionals, tourists, retirees, and even telecommuters. Indeed, it seems that Amherst has become home to many of those who can utilize technology to live wherever they want, but work for almost anyone, including themselves.

And it’s the mix that makes the town so attractive, he continued, listing everything from its quintessential New England downtown to its stock of impressive homes to a number of cultural attractions, ranging from the Emily Dickinson Museum to the Jones Library on the campus of Amherst college, which boasts one of the largest collections in the state.

“Some of the works there should be in the National Archives,” said Shaffer. “The library has the original poetry of Robert Frost and some from Emily Dickinson.”

There are eight museums that call Amherst home, including the National Yiddish Book Center and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, said Maroulis, noting that, collectively, they draw more than 100,000 people to the town, visitors who usually stay and spread the wealth among a number of restaurants and eclectic shops.

“Amherst is very proud of its literary tradition. We are community poets and people who appreciate the grandeur of their artistry,” said Shaffer. “We have a lot of history here, and we enhance and embellish it.”

History and the town’s intellectual culture, fueled by the colleges as well as its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, laced with their own bevy of quaint shops, are responsible for the growing number of retirees choosing to call Amherst home.

Although no empirical data has been kept on how many seniors have recently moved there, there are qualitative, and some quantitative, measures showing that Amherst has become a mecca for retirees.

That reputation — and the growing number of older individuals who appreciate the fact that the neighborhood hubs are all accessible by public transportation, biking, or a brisk walk — have caused developers to look to Amherst as a viable place to build communities for people age 50 and older.

Hampshire College has been working with Boston developers to develop an over-50 community, and 160 units are planned for Veridian Village, which will be linked with and located adjacent to the college. The developer has gone through the planning-board process, but the project is on hold due to the economy.

Still, “it’s not off the table, and other planned communities are also under discussion,” said Maroulis. “There is continuing conversation with a number of developers about housing for seniors or families without children.”

Shaffer said space that can be developed near the downtown area is available, and builders are talking about creating luxurious, upscale units with lots of glass, fireplaces, and specialized kitchens.

“That way, people in fairly remarkable homes can move in and be comfortable,” Shaffer said, adding that Amherst neighborhoods are unique, beautiful, and provide a real sense of community to those who live there.

“Retirees are increasingly looking to relocate to communities that provide a level of ambience and services that will enhance their lives,” he added. “And Amherst is a Currier and Ives community.”

The history, intellectual stimulation, and atmosphere that draw retirees and tourists are key to the town’s branding and economic focus.

“We want to be well-known for tourism and should be able to capitalize on it,” Maroulis said. “The chamber urges people to ‘come to Amherst where you can do a lot in a day.’”

Prominent town museums are also doing their own marketing. They include the Amherst College Museum of Natural History, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and the National Yiddish Book Center, which have banded together with others in a collaborative effort to promote themselves as a local attraction under the banner of Museums10.

Shaffer says Amherst provides a great environment for businesses such as restaurants, bakeries, retail shops, and bookstores, as the town already has an established clientele, composed of tens of thousands of students and people who work at the colleges, along with the infrastructure to support them.

Something to Celebrate

The sum of Amherst’s various parts makes it both a local and regional economic engine, said Shaffer, noting that, while there are many direct benefits to Amherst itself, the impact can be felt across Western Mass.

“Amherst has been perceived as an insular community with an internal focus. People forget our regional importance,” he said, pointing to UMass Amherst, which is the second-largest employer in Western Mass. “UMass is an 800-pound gorilla and is a significant part of the community. We wouldn’t have a population of 36,000 without it.”

The university pays the town $475,000 to operate its fire and ambulance services along with other payments in lieu of taxes. It’s also the summer home for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They bring in tens of thousands of people for their sessions,” Shaffer said, adding that these visitors frequent the town’s business establishments.

Amherst College plays a pivotal economic role and has a strategic partnership agreement with the town. “They have gifted us $250,000 over the last two years,” Shaffer said. “Our partnership with them is deep, strong, and positive.”

Hampshire College is the third educational cornerstone, and one of the town’s primary goals is to maintain positive relationships with these schools, as they are inextricably linked to economic success.

“What comes out of the college is the basis for our economic activity,” said Maroulis. “Studies that date back to 2006 show that nearly a billion dollars is generated across the region from them.”

Since UMass is known as a leader in the field of polymers, engineering, and alternative energy, the town hopes to use that as leverage to attract new businesses to a 60-acre plot of land in North Amherst.

The parcel is composed of farmland owned by the Patterson family, but Shaffer said the town is working to gain control of it and plans to market and develop the site to and for companies who could take advantage of UMass specialty graduates who want to remain in Amherst because of the lifestyle there.

“This plot is one of our more significant sites. We have been working on it over the past year, and it is an important opportunity,” Shaffer said.

School of Thought

No town is recession-proof, but Maroulis and Shaffer say Amherst comes as close as it gets.

“When the recession hit so deeply and quickly, the rest of the country was impacted very fast,” said Maroulis. “We had stability because classes at the colleges were already in place.”

He predicts the town will see the effects of the downturn next year as college endowments are reduced and will see a later recovery as well. “We are following a different timeline,” he said.

Shaffer agrees. “We are not immune to the economic downturn, but we are insulated because of the great stability of our academic institutions,” he said.

Although the town has had to make cuts, its public school system has always been a draw, and “since we started from a program which was extremely rich, we are not going to cry about the budget,” he added.

Amherst also benefits from businesses that spin off from the colleges. Many young students have become entrepreneurs, and Maroulis points to the success of Campuslife.com as an example.

“It’s a growing business that serves over 60 colleges across the U.S. and Canada and was started here by students who didn’t finish college,” he said.

UMass has been an incubator for other firms, such as Sun Ethanol, whose name was changed to Qteros. Although the firm, dedicated to producing low-carbon fuel energy from plant and tree waste, has moved from the town, “they set a good example of the type of business spawned here and left their mark,” said Maroulis. “We have seen growth in the university incubator and expect to see more in the future.”

If life is a balancing act, Amherst officials see their town as a high-wire attraction. Zones of economic activity include the neighborhoods of Atkins Corner, North Amherst Center, and Cushman’s Center, where Cushman’s delicatessen serves up music and art as well as food.

There are also businesses in East Amherst Center and open spots ready to be developed along University Drive. “All of them are easily accessible to the downtown hub,” Maroulis said.

Many telecommuters have moved to Amherst, he added, noting that “the urban existence in a small town setting appeals to them.” They include Web developers, database developers, and graphic designers who bring their computers to downtown coffee shops and work there.

Another bright spot is the Cinema Complex on the corner of Amity and South Pleasant streets. It’s a project that had been been talked about for years, beginning in the late ’90s, and was eventually downscaled.

But the result is unique, and consists of a partnership between the nonprofit cinema, which shows foreign and Sundance Festival films, and the attached restaurant, art gallery, jewelry store, coffee shop, Chamber of Commerce office, and more. “You can’t talk about success without mentioning the importance of this project,” said Maroulis. “It has helped transform downtown.”

The cinema attracts about 2,000 visitors a week who also frequent the shops and eateries. “Downtown was a lot different before this was built,” he said. “It helped set up an anchor and brought in a more-adult crowd.”

He explained that, although students have always kept the town vibrant, the new complex is drawing business people and seniors. “The nonprofit and shops work in synergy,” he said.

Maroulis relocated to Amherst from New York City with his wife and owns a business in town. “I like to say Northampton is Manhattan, and we are Brooklyn with a funky vibe. Amherst is a very livable place with a variety of great things to do and a lot of green space.”

That’s the color of money, which Shaffer and Maroulis hope will continue to grow in this town with more than 600 businesses and a population rich with citizens of all ages.

They include a year-round population of tourists who flock to the town to visit its eight historic musuems and countless art galleries, dine in its restaurants, and shop in eclectic storefronts. Tourists are also drawn to the classes, galleries, shows, and other offerings at UMass Amherst, Amherst College, and Hampshire College.

Jones Library, which is second only to Boston Public Library in size in the state, is another tourist mainstay that beckons intellectuals who seek out its special collections.

The Emily Dickinson homestead sits about 100 yards from Town Hall, and although it only allows six to eight people to tour it at a time, Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, says it’s one of the town’s biggest draws. Add to that the National Yiddish Book Center and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which sit on land donated by Hampshire College. The two entertained a combined total of 60,000 visitors last year, and visitors to all the museums number more than 100,000 annually.

And they’re only a small part of the picture in Amherst, a town that is quietly making an art form out of quality of life.

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