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Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders to address the urgent needs of the business community during the pandemic.

 

Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, first made the observation, “it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

While Epictetus did not live in Amherst, town officials and business leaders there have certainly adopted the philosopher’s adage in their robust efforts to return the town to vitality in the face of a pandemic.

Last March, when COVID-19 began to affect life in communities everywhere, Amherst took a broader hit than most because UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College all shut down earlier than other area institutions.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said the suddenly empty campuses posed a shock to the system.

“We lost 40,000 people in a 48-hour period,” she recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

With college closings and retail activity coming to a screeching halt, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said his town lost its two major industries because of the pandemic. Still, he noted, “despite all that, the town has been resilient, and we are prepared to emerge from the pandemic in a very strong way.”

Early on, Amherst quickly mobilized a COVID-19 response team as Bockelman and the department heads of the Police, Fire, Public Works, and other departments met daily to strategize, he explained. “We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

The next priority was to maintain continuity of government functions. Amherst migrated town staff to remote work and incorporated Zoom meetings to assure key bodies such as the Town Council and the School Committee could keep moving forward. Permit-granting committees soon followed.

“We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

As plans were coming together to allow outdoor dining, the Town Council passed a special bylaw to delegate simple zoning decisions to the building commissioner. This move sped up the permitting process and cut down on much of the bureaucratic red tape.

“For example, permits for serving alcohol outdoors or expanding the footprint of a restaurant could be done through one person instead of going through an often-lengthy permitting process,” Bockelman said.

To address the urgent needs of the local business community, he also met weekly with Gould and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The BID and chamber share office space on Pleasant Street, so Pazmany and Gould worked together to learn about the many grants available to local businesses impacted by COVID-19. The main goal was to help owners stay in business.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says one of her most important roles has been helping business owners navigate the grant system.

“We knew that closing their doors would mean closing their doors forever,” Pazmany said. “That’s what we were trying to avoid.”

 

Granting a Reprieve

Before the pandemic, the chamber would host 56 events in a typical year. Pazmany said she quickly moved to digital events to keep everyone together. “We went from 56 events to 56,000 connections on Facebook and other social media.”

More importantly, in addition to helping local businesses apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Gould and Pazmany have successfully secured grant programs at the state and federal level.

A number of Amherst businesses received grants through the state COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program, which provided a total of $668 million for Massachusetts businesses. Amherst also secured $140,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for local businesses.

State Sen. Joan Comerford helped the Chamber and BID to fund the recently formed Relief and Resiliency Microgrant Program. Originally designed to provide $500 microgrants, Pazmany said they were able to secure matching dollars, so $1,000 grants will soon be awarded to 18 of Amherst’s small-business owners in the first round of the program.

“The microgrant money will help defray some costs and allow people to keep going,” she said. “Many of these business owners are not even paying themselves; they just want to pay their bills.”

One of the more important roles Pazmany and Gould have taken on involves helping business owners navigate the grant system. Whether it’s identifying eligible funding, helping to fill out forms, or solving technical issues, Pazmany said they are not limiting their support to just chamber members. “Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

While outdoor dining and takeout have enabled restaurants to keep their doors open, the BID launched an effort to do more, buying meals from local restaurants and giving them to families in need. The effort began two months ago with the moniker December Dinner Delights and recently received funding to continue through April. Gould sees this as a win-win.

“We pay the restaurants $1,500 twice a week to help them sustain business, and we provide meals for families in our community,” she noted.

Another effort to support local business involves a gift-card program run by the chamber. Launched at the beginning of the holiday season, the gift cards can be redeemed at more than two dozen local businesses, from restaurants to a cat groomer. Pazmany said she has had to reorder cards to keep up with demand. “It works because you are able to give someone a gift and, at the same time, support a small business; it’s the best type of reinvestment in our community.”

As for town-run programs, last spring, municipal leaders had to figure out what to do about the farmers’ market it runs every Saturday from April through November. In the past, it was held in a cramped parking lot that would not conform to social-distancing protocols. Because the town common had no activities scheduled, the farmers’ market set up there — and had its most successful year ever.

“Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

“Our town common is a bucolic setting, and people who were cooped up all week could safely come and buy things,” Bockelman said. The manager of the farmers’ market reported the average sales week in 2020 equaled the best sales week in 2019, and the booths sold out of their products every week.

The farmers’ market was a highly visible way to revitalize interest in Amherst, as are continuing “quality-of-life developments,” as Bockelman called them, such as the newly opened Groff Park and the building of a new playground at Kendrick Park.

But smaller acts, like making picnic tables available in parks and other public places, were popular as well, he added. “As soon as we put out the tables, people were immediately using them. It was awesome.”

 

Forward Thinking

Looking to the future, Amherst is making decisions on four major capital projects slated for construction in 2022. On the drawing board are a new elementary school, a new library, a new Public Works facility, and a new fire station.

“We are trying to incorporate these projects into our ongoing budget so the taxpayer does not have to take on too much of a burden,” Bockelman said.

The desirability of Amherst as a place to live keeps housing prices high, which he calls a two-edged sword because it hurts the town’s ability to build a diverse socioeconomic community.

“People value diversity in Amherst,” he said. Still, he added, “it’s much more diverse than most people realize, especially our school district.”

To deepen that diverse profile, Amherst is looking to invest in property to develop more affordable housing. Bockelman pointed to a recently approved development on Northampton Road and a potential land purchase on Belchertown Road as additional projects in the works. “The town is willing to make the investment to develop and retain affordable-housing units in Amherst.”

To better address diversity in business, the chamber makes available an open-source document for proprietors who want to identify their business as being run by a woman, minority, or LGBTQ individual.

Pazmany said it’s simply good for business, noting that “we are getting steady requests from people who want to do business with various self-identifying businesses.”

Amherst at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
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

One element in the town’s strategy emphasizes Amherst’s potential as a tourist destination. Several national news articles have suggested that this decade may become a second “roaring 20s” with a renewed emphasis on cultural attractions. If that’s so, Pazmany pointed out, Amherst has plenty to offer, such as Museums10, a collaborative of 10 area museums, of which seven are located in town. Together, the museums cover various aspects of history, art, literature, and the natural world.

“In a normal year, Museums10 will bring more than a half-million people to the area,” she said. “The Emily Dickinson Poetry Festival itself is a global event.”

For the more immediate future, the plan is to have outdoor dining up and running by April 1. The BID was able to supply enough table umbrellas and heaters during the summer to boost last year’s effort. Because there are so many barriers in place to ensure safe outdoor dining, the BID also paid 35 artists to turn the plain concrete into a medium to express themselves.

“The barriers became nice displays of public art, and they give downtown a bit of an art-walk feel,” Gould said.

Simple touches like the artwork and adding planters around town generated positive comments from visitors and business owners alike. Pazmany appreciated the boost of confidence. “In this next phase, we just want our businesses to be up and running so they can take a paycheck and start to rehire people.”

Most Amherst leaders, in fact, look to the coming year with great anticipation. Bockelman noted that the town has several fundamental strengths, including the university and colleges. Pazmany added that UMass has already reported an increase in enrollment for the coming fall.

Gould admits that pushing forward on grants and other relief efforts helped Amherst through the worst of the pandemic. “Despite how hard everyone was hit, we’ve created a resiliency that kept our businesses here.”

Bockelman agreed. “Everyone’s efforts worked because they were sequential and were patiently done. We just kept moving forward.”

Epictetus would be proud.

Daily News

BOSTON — State Rep. Mindy Domb announced designated funding in the amount of $300,000 for the town of Amherst for information-technology (IT) upgrades in the recently passed IT bond bill. Domb joined her colleagues in the state Legislature to pass the legislation, which authorizes up to $1.7 billion in spending for the improvement of IT equipment and related projects in Massachusetts.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the importance of digital equity and the need to ensure a strong information-technology infrastructure that is available to all. I am proud to have played a role in making sure the 3rd Hampshire gets our fair share of state resources,” Domb said. “This funding will assist the town of Amherst to undertake projects in the coming years as varied as providing free wi-fi internet access in downtown Amherst for the benefit of people who need it, including people who are experiencing homelessness, visitors, and small businesses; connecting underserved residents to wi-fi internet access by expanding wi-fi internet access to key municipal parking lots near town and school buildings; purchasing IT equipment for disaster preparation and contingency preparedness; delivering information-technology technical assistance to the Amherst Senior Center and its participants and acquiring necessary IT equipment for their benefit; and expanding remote-work capabilities and creating efficiencies in town government functions.”

Paul Bockelman, Amherst town manager, added that “the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the town to make significant investments in technology and migrate services to online platforms. It is important that the state recognize the need for further investment, and I thank Rep. Domb for her advocacy to ensure this commitment for the town of Amherst is included in this important bill.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Claudia Pazmany says the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Downtown BID have found many ways to partner to raise the town’s profile.

The Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce shares a downtown storefront with the Amherst Downtown Business Improvement District (BID). More important, the two organizations share a common vision.

“In general, BIDs and chambers aren’t always symbiotic, but we have found a way to really bridge that,” said Claudia Pazmany, the chamber’s executive director.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the BID, agreed. “We’ve been working very closely with the chamber; it’s been great bouncing a lot of ideas off each other,” she said. “I think both the BID and the chamber have this approach that a rising tide lifts all shops. We want the Amherst area to thrive and succeed.”

Gould, who came on board the BID five months ago, said part of her focus has been heavily marketing a buy-local, shop-local, eat-local philosophy, and it’s bearing results. For example, a ‘red-ticket’ month held during the holidays, in which shoppers got a red ticket for each $25 spent downtown, which went into a drawing for cash prizes, generated about $500,000. “That’s money that stays local instead of going to the big-box stores.”

The BID is also conducting conversations with residents and businesses about zoning and development — particularly targeting those who generally oppose any change.

“We’re getting some developers together with some community members who are anti-development, where developers are saying, ‘look, I’m fourth-generation Amherst. I’m not the boogeyman. I’m not looking to build a high-rise,’” she explained. “Let’s stop talking about what we hate, let’s stop talking about what’s already been built, and let’s start working together to make a vibrant and dynamic downtown. And without some redevelopment, that’s not going to happen. We need retail stores. We need restaurants.”

Beyond that, the BID has formed a new Foundation for Downtown Amherst, looking to create a 501(c)(3) with a mission to boost the downtown through arts and culture development and promotion. Goals include building a parking garage and working with architects and engineers to create a permanent performing-arts shell on the common.

“Amherst has slipped a bit — we’ve become a drive-through town, and we’ve lost some retail — and to drive traffic back to our downtown, we need density, but we also need things that people will travel to town for.”

Gould hopes to raise sufficient funds to endow the latter project, maintain it, and program it for two years with free performances, ranging from local high-school plays and concerts to touring musicians and theater and dance companies. Another idea is to commission a piece of sculpture that would become a recognized landmark in Amherst and beyond.

“My take on downtown is, if you bring in more art and culture, the retail and restaurants will follow, because we’re going to drive people to Amherst,” she told BusinessWest.

“This should be a destination. In all four seasons of the year, we have a lot to offer. Amherst has slipped a bit — we’ve become a drive-through town, and we’ve lost some retail — and to drive traffic back to our downtown, we need density, but we also need things that people will travel to town for. Our job is to support the businesses that are here and help in bring new businesses and more visitors.”

Broad Vision

Meanwhile on Jan. 22, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce released its 2020 Vision report, which seeks to activate:

• Fiscal resiliency, by establishing processes and benchmarks to keep the town resilient through challenging times, while creating pricing structures to benefit chamber members and drive further membership;

• Community impact, by developing new and deeper opportunities to create partnerships and increase exposure for the chamber’s 65 nonprofit members;

• Transformative tourism outreach, by creating opportunities to highlight the creative economy and redefine the Amherst area as a destination;

• The entrepreneurial pipeline, by creating a toolkit for startups that offers information and support on startup space, marketing visioning, pitch support, loan support, mentoring connections, and microfinancing;

• Workforce development, by bolstering educational and training programs, supporting other regional educational offerings, and connecting job seekers to jobs and transportation; and, conversely, working to address barriers to employment for chamber members;

• Advocacy, through the creation of a government affairs and policy advocacy committee to create programs and forums vital to members and bring forward key issues that support economic development through direct communication with lawmakers and key stakeholders; and

• Professional development for chamber staff, partly by establishing goals around membership, the entrepreneurial pipeline, tourism, advocacy, professional development, and community impact.

“Everything is driven by conversations with people who walk through the door — maybe an alum from one of the colleges, maybe someone who’s retiring here,” Pazmany said. “They’re here because it’s a destination with huge, untapped potential, and we have to get that word out.”

Take the town’s position as a dining destination, she noted. “Downtown Amherst has everything — you can explore the world through dining downtown, and because it’s a college town, the prices are right.”

The plan to take advantage of that is twofold, both she and Gould said — better marketing of what’s already downtown, especially to those outside the region, and bringing in more of it.

Economic efforts involve regional thinking as well, Pazmany added, noting that Amherst businesses have often felt that Route 9 development in Hadley was a deterrent to their success, while, in fact, an improving regional profile benefits everyone. Amherst, she said, can take advantage of that regional attention while honing its own strengths.

“People really love the community feel here. It’s a walkable downtown, with pretty much everything at your fingertips,” she told BusinessWest, adding that people want to feel like they’re part of something bigger, and that’s something a thriving downtown district can provide.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.32
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.32
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; Delivery Express
* Latest information available

“We have arts and culture and a lot of venues that offer music,” she went on, adding that museums like the Mead, the Carle, and the Yiddish Book Center offer an additional cultural backdrop in town, while the Amherst Cinema drives plenty of programming downtown. That’s why it’s important to take that strength and grow it further, she noted, as a way to both keep residents living here and cultivate a tourism economy.

“More than 30,000 come down Route 9 every day. I have the best of both worlds — I get to focus on the downtown, and I also get to focus on the broader community and bring that to the table when I partner with the BID.”

Creative Thinking

One other advantage for the chamber, Pazmany said, is its connection to UMass Amherst, which has deepened by reaching out to Gregory Thomas, executive director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship to discuss strategies for harnessing the significant entrepreneurial energy being generated on campus and keeping it local.

That takes physical development, and some creativity, she noted, as the town isn’t home to swaths of large, unused buildings like in Holyoke and Easthampton — and, as Gould noted, not everyone in town is high on new development.

But she would like to see an influx of new businesses that cater equally to residents and the 35,000 college students who live in town most of the year, from grocery stores to a men’s clothing shop to a place to buy bedding and furniture.

“We’re looking out there and saying, ‘what is going to benefit all of us?’ In terms of bringing in retailers, we need buildings to put them in. A lot of pieces need to fall into place, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

In her few months on the job, Gould has been asking businesses, ‘what do you need?’

“They all say, ‘we need more businesses,’” she went on, and that’s not always an easy sell to residents, especially long-established ones. “There’s excitement here, but also a lot of fear when you mention development, when you mention building, when you mention ‘new.’ When you start talking to them, it’s very fear-based.

“So how do we take the big, bad boogeyman out of the closet and decide what Amherst really needs?” she asked. “If we don’t, we’re not going to see growth and positive change. We might lose more retail and restaurants. And we don’t want that — we want more people to come in.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

On the gridiron, they call it ‘piling on.’

That’s when one tackler stops the ball carrier and begins to take him down, and a number of teammates come over and help him get the job done. That’s piling on.

The phrase has been adapted for use off the football field as well. It has taken on several meanings, and is often used in the context of debates and adding many voices to an expressed opinion on a particular subject.

With that, we’ll say we’re piling on today on the subject of UMass football, or the sorry state of UMass Amherst football, to be more precise. To be sarcastic, and a little snarky, this team probably hasn’t piled on all season, and that explains why it’s giving up more than 50 points a game on average. And this isn’t to LSU, Ohio State, or Oklahoma, either. It’s to Army, Liberty, UConn, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern, and other non-powerhouses in college football.

But this isn’t a column for the sports page. It’s an editorial for a business publication. College football is business, but, more to the point, we believe the sad state of the football team is hurting the business — and the brand — of the state university.

We’re not the only ones expressing this opinion, hence that comment about piling on.

Indeed, other media outlets have gone beyond printing the abysmal scores of the UMass games — 44-0, 69-21, 63-21, and 63-7 have been some of the recent ones — and are now asking, ‘why are we still doing this?’

‘This,’ of course, is playing football in what’s known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, where the Alabamas, Georgias, and Notre Dames live. UMass has played all those schools and others, generally receiving more than $1 million for the privilege of traveling to those college towns, becoming a designated cupcake on the schedule, and getting trucked by the home team.

We’d say it’s getting embarrassing, but it’s well past the ‘getting’ stage — so much so that UMass President Marty Meehan, who was at the Army game at West Point a few weeks back and witnessed the carnage (that’s the 63-7 score, and it wasn’t really that close) first-hand, knew what reporters were calling about the following Monday before they asked their first question.

When asked by the Boston Globe whether the school should give up the ghost and drop back down a level in college football, Meehan danced around the matter and essentially said it was up to the school and its chancellor to make that decision.

Maybe he’s right, but he could certainly help them make it, and we believe he should.

Over the past several years, we’ve written countless stories about a university on the rise — a business school climbing up the ranks nationally, astronomers helping to provide proof of black holes, student scientists and entrepreneurs turning discoveries in the lab into new businesses, and a food-service program second to none — and a brand taking hold nationally.

Football can’t and won’t kill the brand, but these scores, this embarrassment on the field, certainly isn’t helping, and of late, it has become a distraction.

Yes, this football season will mercifully end in a few weeks, and maybe the press will go away for a while and stop talking about football. But the problem isn’t going away — and it is a problem, a very big problem.

Nearly a decade after entering the Football Bowl Subdivision, UMass isn’t making any progress. In fact, it’s regressing. It is struggling mightily to recruit solid players, as might be expected given the school’s location and its track record for losing by 40 points every week. And that’s not going to change anytime soon. The school is finding out that this is a cycle you can’t break.

Maybe the money is working out, but we think it’s more of a wash than anything else. And the school’s reputation, or brand, is taking a serious hit that can’t be mitigated by the hockey team going to the national finals last spring.

The team has become a punching bag and a punchline, and it’s time for the university to cut its losses.

Education

The Face of a Changing Landscape

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

As high-school graduating classes continue to get smaller and the competition for those intensifies, many smaller independent colleges are finding themselves fighting for their very survival. One of them is Hampshire College in Amherst, which, because of its unique mission, alternative style, and famous alums (including Ken Burns), has in many ways become the face of a growing crisis.

Miriam Nelson says she became a candidate to become the seventh president of Hampshire College — and accepted the job when it was offered to her last April — with her eyes wide open, fully aware of the challenges facing that Amherst-based institution and others like it — not that there are many quite like Hampshire.

Then she clarified those comments a little. She said she knew the school was struggling with enrollment and therefore facing financial challenges — again, as many smaller independent schools were and still are. But she didn’t know just how bad things were going to get — and how soon.

She became aware through a phone call on May 2 from the man she would succeed as president of the school, Jonathan Lash.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned,” she recalled, with a discernable amount of understatement in her voice.

Indeed, with that phone call — and the ensuing fight for its very survival — Hampshire became, in many ways, the face of a changing landscape in higher education, at least in the Northeast.

That’s partly because of the school’s unique mission, alternative style, and notable alums such as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. But also because of heavy media coverage — the New York Times visited the campus earlier this month, one of many outlets to make the trip to South Amherst — and the fact that the school is really the first to carry on such a fight in an open, transparent way.

In some ways, Hampshire is unique; again, it has a high profile, and it has had some national and even international news-making controversies in recent years, including a decision by school leaders to take down the American flag on campus shortly after the 2016 election, while students and faculty members at the college discussed and confronted “deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community,” a move that led veterans’ groups to protest, some Hampshire students to transfer out, and prospective students to look elsewhere.

But in most respects, Hampshire is typical of the schools now facing an uncertain future, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), adding that those fitting the profile are smaller independent schools with high price tags (tuition, room, and board at Hampshire is $65,000), comparatively small endowments, and student bodies made up largely, if not exclusively, of recent high-school graduates.

That’s because high-school graduating classes have been getting smaller over the past several years, and the trend will only continue and even worsen, said Brittingham, citing a number of recent demographic reports.

Meanwhile, all schools are confronting an environment where there is rising concern about student debt and an increased focus on career-oriented degrees, another extreme challenge at Hampshire, where traditional majors do not exist.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned.”

None of these changes to the landscape came about suddenly or without warning, said Brittingham, noting that the storm clouds could be seen on the horizon years ago. Proactive schools have taken a variety of steps, from a greater emphasis on student success to hiring consultants to help with recruiting and enrollment management.

But for some, including several schools in New England, continued independence and survival in their original state was simply not possible. Some have closed — perhaps the most notable being Mount Ida College in Newton, which shut down abruptly two months before commencement last spring — while others have entered into partnerships, a loose term that can have a number of meanings.

In some cases, it has meant an effective merger, as has been the case with Wheelock College and Boston University and also the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, but in others, it was much more of a real-estate acquisition, as it was with Mount Ida, bought by UMass Amherst.

What lies ahead for Hampshire College is not known, and skepticism abounds, especially after the school made the hard decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019. But Nelson remains optimistic.

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus, which has been in the national media spotlight since it was announced that the school was looking to forge a partnership with another school in order to continue operations.

“Hampshire has always been innovative, and we’re going to do this the ‘Hampshire way,’” she said during an interview in the president’s off-campus residence because her office on the campus was occupied by protesting students. “We’re thinking about our future and making sure that we’re as innovative as we were founded to be. We need to make sure that our financial model matches our educational model.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Nelson and Brittingham about the situation at Hampshire and the changing environment in higher education, and how the school in South Amherst has become the face of an ongoing problem.

New-school Thinking

Those looking for signs indicating just how serious the situation is getting within the higher-education universe saw another one earlier this month when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to strengthen the state’s ability to monitor the financial health of private colleges.

“Our legislation will strengthen this crucial component of our economy, but most importantly, it will help protect students and their families from an abrupt closure that could significantly impact their lives,” Baker said in a statement that was a clear reference to the Mount Ida fiasco.

The bill applies to any college in Massachusetts that “has any known liabilities or risks which may result in imminent closure of the institution or jeopardize the institution’s ability to fulfill its obligations to current and admitted students.”

And that’s a constituency that could get larger in the years and decades to come, said Brittingham, adding that demographic trends, as she noted, certainly do not bode well for small, independent schools populated by recent high-school graduates.

She cited research conducted by Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which shows that, in the wake of the Great Recession that started roughly 11 years ago, many families made a conscious decision to have fewer children, which means the high-school graduating classes in the middle and end of the next decade will be smaller.

“Things are going to get worse around 2026,” she said. “The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

As noted earlier, Nelson understood the landscape in higher education was changing when she decided to pursue a college presidency, and eventually the one at Hampshire, after a lengthy stint at Tufts and then at the University of New Hampshire as director of its Sustainability Institute.

She told BusinessWest that Hampshire offered the setting — and the challenge — she was looking for.

“Hampshire was the one where I thought there was the most opportunity, and the school that was most aligned with more core values and my interests,” she explained, adding that she was recruited by Lash for the post. “This school has always been inquiry-based, and I always like to start with a question mark. To be at Hampshire means you have to have imagination and you have to be able to handle ambiguity when you have an uncertain future; that’s one of the hallmarks here at Hampshire.”

Imagination is just one of the qualities that will be needed to help secure a solid future for the school, she acknowledged, adding that, while the current situation would be considered an extreme, the college has been operating in challenging fiscal conditions almost from the day it opened in 1970 — and even before that.

“We started out under-resourced, and we’ve had different moments during almost every president’s tenure where there were serious concerns about whether the college could continue,” she said. “We’ve always been lean, but we’ve managed.”

Barbara Brittingham

Barbara Brittingham

“Things are going to get worse around 2026. The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

However, this relatively thin ice that the college has operated on became even thinner with the changing environment over the past several years, a climate Nelson put in its proper perspective.

“Higher education is witnessing one of the most disruptive times in history, with decreasing demographics, increased competition for lower-priced educational offerings, and families demanding return on investment in a college education in a short period of time,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of factors involved with this; it is a crisis point.”

A crisis that has forced the college to reach several difficult decisions, ranging from layoffs — several, effective April 19, were announced last month involving employees in the Admissions and Advancement offices — to the size and nature of the incoming class.

Indeed, due to the school’s precarious financial situation — and perhaps in anticipation of the governor’s press for greater safeguards against another Mount Ida-like closing, Hampshire has decided to admit only those students who accepted the school’s offer to enroll via early admission and those who accepted Hampshire’s offer to enroll last year but chose to take a gap year and matriculate in the fall of 2019.

Nelson explained why, again, in her most recent update to the Hampshire community, posted on the school’s website, writing that “our projected deficit is so great as we look out over the next few years, we couldn’t ethically admit a full class because we weren’t confident we could teach them through to graduation. Not only would we leave those students stranded — without the potential for the undergraduate degree they were promised when they accepted Hampshire — we would also be at risk of going on probation with our accreditors.”

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools challenged by shrinking high-school graduating classes and escalating competition for those students.

While reaching those decisions, leaders at the college have also been working toward a workable solution, a partnership of some kind that will enable the school to maintain its mission and character.

Ongoing work to reach that goal has been rewarding on some levels, but quite difficult on all others because of the very public nature of this exercise, said Nelson, adding that her first eight months on the job have obviously been challenging personally.

She said the campus community never really got to know her before she was essentially forced into crisis management.

And now, the already-tenuous situation has been compounded by negativism, criticism (Nelson has reportedly been threatened with a vote of no confidence from the faculty), and rumors.

“There’s a lot of chaos and false narratives out there,” she explained. “So I’ve been working really hard both in print and in many assemblies and meetings to get accurate information out. This is a world with lots of false narratives and conspiracy theories; we heard another one yesterday — they’re really creative and interesting. I don’t know how people think them up.”

Textbook Case?

As she talked about the ongoing process of finding a partnership and some kind of future for Hampshire College, Nelson said she’s received a number of phone calls offering suggestions, support, and forms of encouragement as she goes about her work in a very public way.

One such call was from a representative of the Mellon Foundation.

“He said he’s never seen a college do this in a transparent way like we are,” she said. “He’s right, and when you’re doing it in real time, and transparently, it’s going to be clunky; it’s not like you’ve got every detail worked out and figured out right at the very beginning. We’re doing the figuring out in a public way and engaging with the community and our alums and the broader community and the higher-ed community as we do this.

“It’s a very different way to do it, and no one has ever done it; it is a very Hampshire way,” she went on. “But that makes it really hard, and I can see why every other president who has been in this place has not done this in an open way. I understand it.”

Miriam Nelson

Miriam Nelson says Hampshire College is determining the next stage in its history in real time, which means the process will be “clunky.”

Elaborating, she said there are no textbooks that show schools and their leaders how to navigate a situation like this, and thus she’s relying heavily on her board (in the past, it met every quarter; now it meets every week), the faculty, students, and other college presidents as she goes about trying to find a workable solution.

And there are some to be found, said Brittingham, adding that several effective partnerships have been forged in recent years that have enabled both private and public schools to remain open.

Perhaps the most noted recent example is Wheelock and Boston University, although it came about before matters reached a crisis level.

“Wheelock looked ahead and felt that, while they were OK at that moment, given the trends, given their resources, and given their mission, over time, they were going to be increasingly challenged,” she explained. “So they decided that sooner, rather than later, they should look for a partner, which turned out to be Boston University, which Wheelock essentially merged into.

“That’s seen as a good arrangement, it was handled well, and they were able to preserve the name of the founder in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University,” she went on. “They were able to transition a large number of faculty and staff to Boston University, it was geographically close … it’s been a smooth transition.”

Another partnership that fits that description is the one between two small public colleges in Vermont — Johnson State College and Lyndon State College.

“They had compatible missions — one of them was more liberal-arts-oriented, and the other was more focused on career programs — so they merged and became Northern Vermont University,” she said, adding that the merger allows them to share central services and thus gain efficiencies in overall administration.

Whether Hampshire can find such an effective working arrangement remains to be seen, but Nelson takes a positive, yet realistic outlook.

“I continue to be optimistic because Hampshire is an exceptional place with a great reputation,” she said. “But it’s not easy facing layoffs and things like that. But I believe this year, 2019, will be the toughest year, and then things will get better.”

Charting a New Course

Time will tell whether this projection comes to pass.

The decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019 is seen by some as a perhaps fateful step, one that will make it that much harder to put the college on firmer financial ground moving forward.

But Nelson, as noted, is optimistic that the ‘Hampshire way’ will yield what could become a model for other schools to follow in the years and decades to come, as the higher-education landscape continues to evolve.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz say Amherst benefits in many ways from its reputation as an academic hub.

Amherst is a community in transition, Paul Bockelman says — in some positive ways.

The most notable change, obviously, was the seating of Amherst’s first Town Council last month; 13 members were elected following a change in the town charter last March that included a move away from the town-meeting form of government.

“Some people who advocated for the charter change felt the representative town meeting wasn’t fully representative of the town and wasn’t nimble enough to address the issues that were facing the town on a daily basis,” said Bockelman, Amherst’s town manager. Other people, he added, were angry after the town meeting failed to fund a new school building.

Either way, he went on, “they’re building a government from scratch. Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting. A lot of issues were put on hold during the transition period. Now that the council’s in place, there’s this backlog of things people want them to do, so those will start pouring through the system during the course of the year.”

But that’s not the only way Amherst is changing, said Geoff Kravitz, the town’s Economic Development director. He cited activity in the restaurant scene, which has welcomed a number of new names, including Asian eateries Chuan Jiao and Kaiju, Jake’s at the Mill in North Amherst, Share Amherst, and Shiru Café, an intriguing coffee shop and study space that offers free coffee to area students in exchange for their personal information, which is sold to job recruiters and advertisers.

“Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting.”

“For college students, it’s an interesting model where they get a cup of coffee every hour,” Bockelman said. “It’s really designed for college students to hang out and do their homework, and the only requirement is that you give them some data that you otherwise would give to Facebook or Twitter.”

“It’s not just for marketing,” Kravitz added, “but for recruiting for jobs out of college. Recruiting is really the model.”

Other restaurants are on their way as well, he added, and vacant properties, especially downtown, don’t remain unfilled for long.

“It’s not a stagnant town; it’s a town of transitions, and not just because we have a new form of government,” Bockelman added. “It seems that every time a restaurant moves out, a new restaurant comes in.”

Building on Progress

There’s plenty more activity on the development front as well. In September, Archipelago Investments, LLC of Amherst opened One East Pleasant, a mixed-use project featuring 135 residential units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

“That whole complex rented up very quickly and is full,” Bockelman said, noting that Archipelago has developed a handful of other properties in Amherst, and is planning another mixed-use project at 26 Spring St., which will feature 38 residential units and 1,000 square feet of commercial space.

Meanwhile, W.D. Cowls Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Communities are moving forward with North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use development under construction 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.

Amherst is also among the Western Mass. communities enthusiastically exploring the marijuana industry as an economic driver. That’s not surprising, considering the town’s voters favored the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana by a 3-to-1 margin. RISE Amherst, a medical-marijuana dispensary, is currently in operation, with three other businesses working their way through the local and state licensing process.

With 33,000 students attending UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town has also worked on educational efforts around adult-use marijuana, and 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.

From a municipal perspective, the town has long been studying the potential renovation of the North Common/Main Street parking lot, Kravitz noted.

“There’s been a parking lot in front of Town Hall since at least the ’70s, if not earlier, and we’re trying to redesign it from both a drainage and ecological perspective,” he explained. “It’s sort of sloped oddly, so when it rains, all the rain coming off the streets washes it out; that was the primary purpose of looking at it.”

What to do with the space will be one of the Town Council’s issues to tackle in 2019, Bockelman added. “The biggest question coming up relatively soon to the Town Council will be, do you want to work on this project or leave it as is?”

Meanwhile, the overall vision for Amherst has long involved arts and culture. The Amherst Central Cultural District 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, and some of those efforts bleed into the downtown area as events, such as ArtWeek, a statewide effort taking place from April 26 to May 5.

Amherst at a Glance:

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“We want to create more excitement about being downtown,” Bockelman said. “Downtowns today are less about retail, brick-and-mortar shops and more about entertainment and cultural events. Some of them can be sponsored by the town, but a lot of them come from individuals.”

Many of Amherst’s museums and cultural institutions have statewide, even national reputations, and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College are two of fewer than two dozen ‘living buildings’ worldwide — structures that meet strict standards for hyper-sustainability and net-zero energy use.

All these factors, plus the colleges and UMass, create a buzz and energy that attracts both new businesses and families to Amherst, Kravitz said.

“From a business perspective, there are very few communities of our size that boast three institutions of higher education,” he told BusinessWest. “I think that we have an incredibly educated population. People want to be around other people who have big ideas, so I think that’s part of the draw for some of the businesses — to be around other smart people. You saw that happening in Boston and Cambridge, you saw it happen in Silicon Valley, and I think that all starts with the academic institutions, whether it’s Stanford or MIT or UMass here.”

It’s Academic

The recent mixed-use developments are a welcome start to meeting housing needs in a growing town, as there hasn’t been much residential development over the previous couple of decades. In fact, a 2015 study determined that Amherst could use some 4,000 more units.

Still, Bockelman said, “I think it really is a place where people want to come to raise their family, for lots of different reasons.”

Last week, he met with a man who teaches two days a week in Washington, D.C. “He says he can leave his house at 6:15 in the morning, be in Washington by 10, and stays overnight. When he comes back, he takes the 5:00 and is back home at 8 to put his kid to bed. He chose to live in Amherst because he wanted a multi-cultural community with people who care about education, with excellent schools and an academic environment, and he found all that, plus easy access to open space. So he’s willing to make that weekly commute from Bradley. That’s kind of amazing to hear.”

That’s why it’s heartening, he added, to see how UMass Amherst has raised its profile in recent years as an internationally recognized research institution.

“It’s a big economic engine; thousands of people come in every day to work there,” he said. “Amherst is the largest community in Hampshire County, but it doesn’t read that way because it doesn’t look like Northampton, like a city. And in terms of our population, some people say the students are inflating that, but they’re here eight to nine months a year. And what that number does not count is the number of people who come into town every day because they’re employed by the two colleges or the university.”

In short, he concluded, “it’s a very vibrant community, even though it retains a certain college-town atmosphere that so many people love about it.”

That characteristic is one he and Kravitz both expect to remain steady, no matter what other transitions Amherst has in store.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Lean and Green

solar canopies

These solar canopies over a parking lot are part of a massive, campus-wide photovoltaic project.

Because its region is so environmentally conscious, UMass Amherst would appear to be fertile ground for sustainable practices like green energy, eco-friendly buildings, and a buy-local ethos in food service. But it’s still remarkable how broadly — and effectively — the university has cast its net when it comes to sustainability. A national report placing the campus ninth in the nation for such efforts is the latest accolade, but UMass isn’t about to rest on its laurels.

Call it a reward for a decade of work.

When the Assoc. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the three-year results of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), UMass Amherst earned placed ninth in the nation — a leap of 20 places from its previous rating in 2015.

That’s gratifying, said Steve Goodwin, deputy chancellor and professor of Microbiology at UMass, who has been heavily involved in efforts to make the state’s flagship campus more green. And it’s not a recognition that was earned overnight.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

When Kumble Subbaswamy became chancellor in 2012, Goodwin said, he ramped up those efforts by forming an advisory committee specifically around sustainability, which helped to raise the awareness of green issues around campus.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

“This new STARS score reflects the university’s continuing commitment to excellence in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said when the ranking was announced. “UMass Amherst is a leader in best practices for energy-efficient construction and sustainable food use, conducting world-class research, and preparing a new generation of students to be inspired stewards of our planet.”

But before any of that could be accomplished — through innovative food-service changes, solar projects, green-building techniques, and a host of other initiatives (more on them later) — there had to be buy-in from both the university’s leaders and its students.

“It gained a lot of acceptance early on because a lot of sustainability is doing what you do and meeting your mission with very high efficiency,” Goodwin said. “That’s not all of what sustainability is, but that was an appealing piece for us. A campus has a particular mission, and it has a limited set of resources to meet that mission.”

Steve Goodwin

Steve Goodwin says buy-in from students has been key to UMass Amherst’s sustainability successes.

Take, for example, the Central Heating Plant, a project completed in 2009 that replaced the campus’ 80-year-old coal-burning plant with a co-generation facility that provides electricity for 70% of the campus and 100% of the steam needed for heating and cooling buildings across the sprawling grounds — all while reducing greenhouse gases by 27%.

“That was a really big decision for the campus,” Goodwin said. “At the time, it was probably the best co-generation plant in the country. That really worked out well for us because we needed electrical power and we were heating with steam, so to get the efficiencies of co-generation was a really a big deal for the campus.”

Those early years of UMass Amherst’s new sustainability focus also saw a reduction in water use — by using recycled water where appropriate — and partnering with Johnson Controls to incorporate energy-saving devices on much of the campus lighting. And that was just the beginning.

“Since then, the sustainability committee has really taken the lead for the chancellor, and made it more of a campus-wide thing,” Goodwin said — in ways that continue to expand and raise the university’s green profile on the national stage.

Food for Thought

Early in the process, late last decade, UMass officials recognized food service as a prime area to boost efficiency and reduce waste. Not only did the sheer volume of food produced every day offer plenty of opportunity for improvement, but students were beginning to ask questions about waste.

“The initial step was to go trayless,” Goodwin said. “If you have a tray of food, it’s easier to heap a lot of food on the tray and not necessarily eat it all. But if you have to carry it all with your hands, you take less to begin with, and if you want more, you just go back.”

As a formal measure, in 2013, UMass Amherst became the largest food-service provider in the nation to sign on to the Real Food Campus Commitment, which requires participating universities’ food budgets to move away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources by 2020. “For an institution this large,” Goodwin said, “we purchase a very large percentage of local food.”

In 2014, UMass Amherst Dining Services was selected as a gold recipient for procurement practices in the 2014 Sustainability Awards given by the National Assoc. of College and University Food Services — just one way national experts were taking notice. Around the same time, the university’s sustainability staff and faculty team from Environmental Conservation, the Physical Plant, Dining Services, and University Relations won the state Department of Energy Resources’ Leading by Example Award.

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield is home to the Student Farming Enterprise, which allows undergraduates to gain hands-on experience managing a small, organic farm. Produce generated there is sold to local stores and a community-supported agriculture share program.

Building design has been another focus, a recent example being the John W. Olver Design Building, completed last year, which uses a wood-concrete composite flooring product that was developed on the UMass campus. The contemporary wood structure, which houses the Building and Construction Technology program, the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, includes sustainability features such as LED lighting, motion sensors, ample natural light, electro-tinting glass, heat-recovery systems, bioswales, rain gardens, low-flow faucets, and public-transportation access.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Science Building, constructed in 2009, employs cooling systems that reuse rainwater, state-of-the-art heat exchanges and ventilation systems, passive solar collection, and extensive use of eco-friendly materials like bamboo, to name just a few features.

“Obviously building is a big chunk of where our resources go, especially energy and water resources, so building design has a big impact,” Goodwin said, noting that UMass typically aims for some level of LEED certification on new buildings.

“But we’ve also done some things that go above and beyond those certifications to try to make our buildings more suited for their particular uses,” he went on. “There’s a whole variety of passive solar issues, lighting issues, energy and water use around buildings, reclaiming ground water, those sorts of considerations.”

Textbook Examples

On an academic level, Goodwin said, sustainability has made its way into the curriculum of nearly every program on campus. “I don’t think there’s any school or college that doesn’t have something that deals with an aspect of sustainability. They range from the obvious — an environmental science course, for instance — to a social justice course where they’re making connections back into sustainability and how that impacts the way people experience their communities.”

He stressed repeatedly, however, that raising up a culture of sustainability has never been a solely top-down effort, and that students have long been engaged on these issues.

“One of the things we did early on was to establish a culture within the dormitories and among the students — in part because the students really want this. They care about these issues a lot,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time building various aspects of sustainability into the curriculum, but also extracurricular activities.”

For example, ‘eco-reps’ are students who are specifically trained around issues of sustainability and are responsible for a floor of a dorm, to help students understand the impact of their day-to-day activities. “We run competitions between the dorms — who’s going to do the most recycling or use the least water this year, those kinds of things.”

Students had a direct impact on one of the university’s most notable green decisions — to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2016, becoming the first major public university to do so.

The John W. Olver Design Building

The John W. Olver Design Building is a model for green design and operation.

A year earlier, the board of directors of the UMass Foundation voted to divest from direct holdings in coal companies in response to a petition from the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student group. Energized by that decision, the campaign staged a series of demonstrations to call for divestment from all fossil fuels, and the foundation board followed suit.

“Important societal change often begins on college campuses, and it often begins with students,” UMass President Marty Meehan said at the time. “I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

It’s an example, Goodwin said, of the ways university leadership and the student body are often in alignment on issues of sustainability, both locally and globally. “So it’s been a balance of having sustainability in the curriculum, having demand from the students, and also having the central administration realize the importance of sustainability university-wide.

Numerous people on campus are tasked with making sure UMass continually improves its efforts, including the creation of a new position, sustainability manager, seven years ago.

“We’re having a huge impact in the region, and we’re proud of the impact we’re having — and at the same time, we’re also proud of what the students are experiencing,” Goodwin said. “Not only are they learning about these issues, but they’re living this approach as well. They’re living within an environment in which sustainability has a higher priority, so now we hope that impact will increase as they go out into their communities and spread the impacts of sustainability.”

Green Makes Green

Last year, UMass Amherst made news on the green-energy front again, installing more than 15,000 photovoltaic panels across campus, providing 5.5 megawatts of clean electrical power for the campus to use for a heavily discounted rate. The initiative is expected to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the regional grid by the equivalent of 31,000 tons of carbon dioxide and cut the university’s electric bills by $6.2 million over 20 years.

“It’s a situation where doing the right thing is also a very smart business decision as well,” Goodwin said. “As time goes on, some of those challenges will get to be a little trickier. Now we’re trying to make decisions about the need to increase the amount of electricity that we’re currently generating, so we’re going to expand the base, but how, exactly, is the right way to do it that’s efficient, a good financial decision, and also a good decision for the environment? It gets very complex.”

For now, he went on, the campus has a strong foundation in decreasing its carbon footprint and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted — efforts that have run the gamut from large-scale energy production to UMass Amherst’s participation in ValleyBike Share.

“The campus had been trying to run an internal bike-share program with some success, but we were hoping to do better,” he noted. “Now, with ValleyBike Share, the campus is working with other communities to develop a program that will actually bring a little more connectivitity between the university and the surrounding communities. So it has multiple benefits.”

Clearly, the impact of sustainable practices on not only the campus, but potentially the world, through the continued efforts of alumni, is reward enough for the university’s broad sustainability efforts — but the STARS recognition is nice too, Goodwin admitted, as it showcases UMass Amherst in the top 10 among some 600 participating institutions.

“We’re very excited about that, but it’s a huge amount of work, to be perfectly honest, because it’s all self-reporting,” he explained. “It covers so many aspects — the academic side, the financial side and investments, energy use, and the social side of sustainability. So it’s a very wide-ranging analysis. And, of course, after you do all that self-reporting, they go and verify everything as well.”

The end result is certainly a source of pride on campus — and a little more motivation to continue and broaden these efforts. Not that UMass needed any.

“Sustainability means a lot of different things to different people,” Goodwin said. “But to me, it was always a way of thinking: ‘OK, yes, we have a set of decisions to make; let’s make sustainability a part of that decision-making process.’ And I think our students are picking up on that as well.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]