Renewed Energy Makes Amherst Busy Again
By Mark Morris
By all indications, from bustling sidewalks to traffic congestion, Amherst is most definitely back.
As the home of UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town had always benefited from the presence of all those students, faculty, staff, and visitors, both economically and with the energy they brought. When the pandemic hit, all those constituencies at all three campuses left town while people everywhere dealt with COVID-19.
Slowly but surely, the students returned as everyone learned how to work their way through the pandemic. Now, after persevering through a few very difficult years, there’s new energy and excitement in and about Amherst.
“When the colleges came back and started to re-engage with the community, it really set the tone for everyone else,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “The outpouring of students returning to downtown was huge.”
Currently, downtown Amherst enjoys a 4% vacancy rate for its commercial properties. Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said seven new restaurants have either recently opened or will do so by the end of the year, including a new White Lion brewery.
“At the Drake, the average age of our audience is in the 40s, and 70% of them live outside Amherst. It’s making our downtown destination-worthy, and as a result, we’re bringing in bigger bands and touring groups.”
“A staple of a successful downtown center is a brewery,” Gould said. “It’s something we’ve been trying to get for several years.”
Gould and the BID played an important role in establishing the Drake, an arts and entertainment venue downtown. Averaging 200 guests a night with four shows a week, the Drake is achieving the BID’s goal of bringing people, vibrancy, and a tricke-down effect to downtown.
While the return of the students is worth celebrating, older adults have also become essential in Amherst’s comeback.
“At the Drake, the average age of our audience is in the 40s, and 70% of them live outside Amherst,” Gould said, adding that audience polling shows they are eating at Amherst restaurants and going out for drinks after attending performances at the club. “It’s making our downtown destination-worthy, and as a result, we’re bringing in bigger bands and touring groups.”
Gould also credits Amherst’s revival to building owners downtown and in the Mill District who have helped entrepreneurs enter the restaurant or retail business, or open ventures themselves, rather than let their properties sit idle.
“Landlords understand that opening a new business is hard, so they want to help people get started,” she said. “It’s an exciting shift that’s been happening.”
Barry Roberts owns several properties in Amherst and decided to create a burger restaurant when his previous tenant, Shanghai Gourmet, closed.
“We have lots of wonderful places to eat in Amherst,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID. “But I thought there was a need for a moderately priced place where you can get burgers, beer, and ice cream.”
After brightening up the wall colors and repurposing booths, the Amherst Burger Company was launched. At press time, the restaurant was scheduled to open its doors by late April.
To manage the new restaurant, Roberts hired David Bourgeois, who has experience running other Amherst restaurants. The emphasis at Amherst Burger is on fun food sourced locally.
“We get our beef from Echodale Farm in Easthampton, our ice cream from Cook Farm in Hadley, and our milk from Mapleline Farm in Hadley,” Bourgeois said. “We are looking to build relationships with additional local farms as their crops come into season.”
Schools of Thought
While downtown has become home to many new businesses, the Mill District in North Amherst is emerging as another hotspot.
When BusinessWest visited Alysia Bryant, owner of Carefree Cakery, the walls in her store were still two-by-four studs. Slated for a June opening, the venture will feature fair-trade ingredients in all its baked goods.
Bryant started college with the intent of becoming a doctor, but soon realized she didn’t have the passion for it and shifted gears to a business curriculum. At that time, she also began making brownies for friends in her dorm room. When her friends became bored with plain brownies, Bryant added different ingredients, such as peanut-butter swirl and cheesecake swirl, and discovered how much she enjoyed the process of modifying recipes to create new treats.
“I realized that I had a passion for helping people and that my skill was baking,” she said. “So I asked, ‘how on earth could I do both at the same time?’”
While the idea for her own place incubated, Bryant spent five years managing the Sherwin-Williams paint store in Hadley, where she refined her skills before running her own business. Additionally, she researched how to source fair-trade ingredients such as vanilla extract, chocolate, and other essential baking items.
“I knew fair-trade products would be more expensive,” she said. “And my biggest concern was, would people be willing to pay for them?”
To get the answer, Bryant teamed up with the Holyoke chapter of EforAll, a national nonprofit entrepreneurial organization, to conduct surveys on pricing and flavors. She was surprised at the positive feedback. “After the survey results, I felt less trepidation and more excitement about Carefree Cakery.”
The owners of Futura Café, located next door, are planning their opening in June at the same time Bryant opens her doors. They will join nearly a dozen other businesses featuring, among other things, vintage clothing, a general store, and an art gallery.
Amherst at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1759
Area: 27.7 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $20.10
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.10
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available
“I enjoy being in the Mill District because there’s real collaboration among the businesses,” Bryant said. “They’ve put an emphasis on building community here.”
Pazmany concurred, noting that the Mill District has created many new community events, including a recent Easter egg hunt that sold out. “It’s a family-friendly place that keeps growing as more people experience the shops there.”
And family-friendly locations are needed because the Amherst area is, well, attracting more families.
Indeed, over the past few years, Massachusetts has seen a slight decline in its population — less than 1%. But in that same time, Hampshire County has seen an increase in its population of roughly 11%, with Amherst on the leading edge of that growth.
“Private development of housing is a major economic driver at this time,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman said. “There’s a demand for housing because so many people want to live in Amherst.”
Realtors are noting trends of growing numbers of families looking to move back to their hometowns, and Amherst is no exception.
“I’ve talked with people who were unleashed from their offices and could live anywhere, and they chose to live in Amherst because of the schools, open space, and cultural attractions downtown,” Bockelman said. “Our town has become a real magnet for people who work remote most of the time.”
Signs of Progress
A key municipal project in the works is the renovation of the North Common, a project Bockelman said will transform the center of Amherst. The area is technically a green space, though most of it is currently covered in wood chips. He said the new design will be a great space for everyone.
“During the pandemic, we learned that people like to get takeout food but then want to linger downtown, and, of course, we want people to linger downtown,” he said. “With the new design, they will be able to get takeout from one of our restaurants and sit at a picnic table or park bench in the middle of a bucolic lawn.”
As the project goes out to bid, several contractors have already told Bockelman they hope to win the contract because the North Common will be such a high-profile job. Construction is scheduled to start in late fall, with completion slated for spring 2024.
“It will be a great civic space where we will have flag raisings, celebrations of different cultures, and, because it’s Amherst, we’ve even created a special space to stage protests,” he said.
Gould said more evidence that Amherst is back can be seen in the restaurants that are busier today than they were before the pandemic. “Restaurant owners are telling me that they’ve never had numbers like this. Many are looking at opening second restaurants.”
Meanwhile, the student population continues to increase as Hampshire College plans to add 200 additional students in the fall.
And downtown will get another boost, with Amherst Cinema being chosen as one of only 12 film houses in the U.S. to show entries into the Sundance Film Festival when it takes place next year. The popular cinema will be the only place in the Northeast to view the Sundance entries.
“That means, during the festival, people will be coming here from Manhattan and Boston because Amherst Cinemas is the closest place in this region to see those films,” Gould said.
Even longtime attractions like the Emily Dickinson Museum are benefiting from the new energy in Amherst. After closing for renovations for part of last year, the museum is busier than ever and draws visitors from all over the world. Many new visitors are young people who discovered the Belle of Amherst through the Apple TV+ series Dickinson.
In the office Pazmany and Gould share, the phone has been ringing much more of late with people complaining they can’t find a hotel room in the area. As much as Pazmany wants to accommodate all visitors to the area, she also recognizes one of those proverbial ‘good problems to have.’
There are actually several of them, she said, noting that people are also complaining about traffic and a need for more places to park.
“Well, the complaint desk is active again, and that’s certainly a sign that we’re busy again,” she said, adding that, after the COVID years, such complaints are more than welcome.