Getting Down to Business
Amherst Area Chamber Focuses on Brand BuildingTony Maroulis was talking about the broad mission of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, and how it’s changed considerably over the past 56 years.
And time and again, he came to the words ‘brand’ and ‘branding,’ which he used to describe not only his organization, but the town of Amherst itself and, especially, its historic, eclectic, and hugely popular downtown.
“The approach that we have taken, and the approach you have to take, is to establish what the core brand is,” said Maroulis, executive director of the chamber. “In Amherst, that is its downtown and the educational institutions. You have to keep that in mind when crafting any strategy.”
Building, protecting, and promoting the brand are critical to the success of everything from attracting and retaining businesses to luring tourists and retirees, to enabling the colleges and UMass Amherst — which give the area so much of its identity and vibrancy — to successfully recruit faculty and staff, said Maroulis, adding that such work also facilitates growth of other areas of Amherst and surrounding communities as well.
“If the strength of the downtown is at peak levels, and you have a visible vibrancy where people are coming, you know you’re driving on all cylinders,” he said. “That really starts to expand and extend to the health and vitality of South and North Amherst as well, and then the other communities.
“It’s about strengthening that brand, and that brand really is about Amherst. Not to detract from other towns, but you have to consider what people on a national level know about your brand identity. And they know Emily Dickinson, the colleges. You have to make sure that you keep that core brand strengthened.”
Historically, what was then called the Amherst Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1956 by a group of businessmen who banded together to forge partnership opportunities in their town. “Many of those families that were instrumental in forming the chamber at that time are still active in the community — the Jones family, the Puffer family. It has been an enduring institution, and one that has had participation from these families and others from generation to generation,” Maroulis said.
But, he noted, as the community has grown from its bucolic background into one of New England’s best-known college towns, the business sector, and the chamber, have evolved with it.
The chamber’s role has expanded over the years, he said, from a small networking organization that would stage fund-raisers and promote member businesses, into an agency that is increasingly about advocacy, and more involved in the politics and planning of the town and region. “We’re much more heavily invested than our role traditionally has been,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, beginning with one of his predecessors, John Coull, the ACC expanded to include some outlying districts that have an intrinsic connection to the Amherst hub — Hadley’s route 9 corridor, the Franklin County town of Sunderland — and, thus, the organization grew into its present name, and is now the AACC.
“There are, in fact, businesses from 20 surrounding communities who are members,” Maroulis said, “because they realize the importance of a presence here in this town.”
For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how Maroulis and the AACC have been getting down to business in order for that brand to translate to higher goals, both within the business community, but also into a philosophical and social dimension that some might deem outside the purview of a chamber of commerce.
Maroulis pointed to one of the best-known local examples of a civic brand: downtown Northampton.
“They’ve been building upon that since Thornes Market took off decades ago,” he explained. “That affected the commerce on King and Pleasant streets. But that also affected the decision of a business like Kollmorgen wanting to stay. And so, if the strength of the downtown — maintaining a quaint New England character, yet also its emerging urban type of feel and sophistication — is fully intact, then that’s going to mean we can attract businesses in our own outlying areas.
“They’re going to want to be here because that core is strong,” he continued. “They’re going to want to have that access to the businesses downtown, and also see their community members in the village square.”
Building upon the civic strength of Amherst requires some evolution. Adjacent to the downtown parking garage, a new construction, a five-story building nears completion. With retail at the ground level and residences on the upper floors, it represents the first project of this scope and size in Amherst in decades.
“This new building is exciting in many dimensions,” Maroulis said. “It proves that you can do infill projects, with zero-lot-line construction, right in downtown Amherst. That’s important not only to the development community, that it can get done, but also to the community at large, to let them know what the possibilities can be.”
Also in the final stages of completion is Amherst’s Business Improvement District. “The fact that downtown landlords are putting money into the enterprise of downtown is truly exciting,” he said. “They are creating something that is sustainable. This isn’t membership-based; everyone is opting in, and they’re sticking it out as long as they have those buildings. It says a lot about the dedication of those participants.
“Those landlords’ faith that we can continue to move our downtown forward is important,” he added. “And it’s a hugely positive sign. As we promote this brand, having that sustainable resource to maintain it on a regular basis allows downtown to continue to be competitive in the marketplace.”
Community Action Plan
Maroulis noted that, at peak levels, pre-recession, the AACC numbered somewhere around 650 members. “We’re back down to around 520, 550,” he added. “So we’re still pretty strong. That’s reflective of the strength of this community, and for one great reason, we can thank our educational institutions.”
The public school system for the Amherst region is legendary for its academic excellence. But he allowed that the town is sensitive to its social needs.
“Nearly 40% of our school-age population is on free or reduced-price school lunches,” he explained. “And there is a significant percentage of our population that is right around the poverty level. If we don’t address some of these issues, we simply can’t continue to be competitive. And that’s why it is so important to be forward-thinking now.”
When pressed to explain the role of a chamber of commerce in such a sociopolitical forum, Maroulis said the answer was far simpler than the problem itself.
“The chamber is an organization that is very close to the culture and norms of our backyard,” he said. “It’s not just business for business’ sake, or just for profit’s sake. As we are reflective of what our community looks like, we’ve been involved, and we continue to get involved, in all facets of this conversation. I don’t think it is a big jump to wonder, if you have a poor school system, how does that affect the real-estate market?”
That reasoning is also reflective of other aspects of the town’s vibrancy. “This is key to attracting faculty who want to come here — generally speaking, not making the same money that they may make in a larger research university,” he explained. “We have some very talented faculty who could just as easily be teaching at Ivy League schools, but they have chosen to be here for the quality of life.
“I’ve had many of my professor friends talk about the sacrifices in terms of salary, but the quality of life and the excellent school system were significant draws,” he added. “If that school system erodes, how much harder is it to continue to attract that caliber of faculty?”
Planning for the Future
Maroulis joked that, in another lifetime, he might want to be an urban or town planner. Zoning and master-plan agendas with regard to working, walkable village centers have been on the front burners of the AACC as Amherst negotiates its town, gown, and development issues.
He credits the generational breadth of his board for both its legacy and its visionary abilities in maintaining the concept of the town’s strong brand, which has and will continue to have currency in these ongoing conversations. While some business families have been active for decades, there is a younger group of professionals that will ensure that the AACC remains vital well into the future.
Maroulis added that partnerships with other regional organizations have a symbiotic relationship with the college town’s business community — not just the newly created BID, but the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and their collaboration to start a Hampshire County Regional Tourism Council.
“What we are is about community,” he said. “And we stress, both from our mission and in our actions, that being a part of something larger, participating in that, is a long-term blueprint for success. You can’t be on an island by yourself.”