By Mark Morris
If business openings are any indication, Amherst is poised for a strong rebound from a pandemic that has been very rough on its mostly tourism-and-hospitality-based economy.
Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) said that, by the end of August by her estimation, at least 13 new businesses will have opened in downtown Amherst.
“We’re watching a lift that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Gould, who shares office space with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and its executive director, Claudia Pazmany.
The two women and their organizations are working together along with town officials to drive economic empowerment and development for Amherst, and, as recent events demonstrate, it’s working.
Pazmany has presided over 10 ribbon cuttings over the past few months and her calendar has plenty more of these celebrations scheduled in the coming weeks and months.
“Many of these businesses opened during the pandemic and now want to celebrate because they have lasted and even grown their businesses,” Pazmany told BusinessWest.
All this activity in Amherst represents a strong comeback of sorts from the many side-effects of the pandemic. As the community where UMass Amherst and Amherst College are located, it has been described as the quintessential college town. When the pandemic hit and colleges were shut down, the economic impact was abrupt and severe.
“Overnight, nearly 50,000 people left the area,” Gould recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”
One way to get an idea of the economic impact colleges have on the town is to look at the number of undergraduate students there. But Gould pointed out that the real impact of students on a town must include all the people who support them, like faculty, staff, and even all the friends and parents who visit the students. When the pandemic hit and campuses were abandoned, Amherst experienced what life would look like without its colleges.
“Once everyone left, our businesses ran at 20% to 30% capacity— and that’s not sustainable,” Gould said. To put it another way, business was off 70% to 80%. “Having the colleges open and the students back fills my heart with joy.”
As noted, these students — and all those who support them or might come to visit them — will see a number of new businesses, especially in the downtown area. That list includes the much-anticipated Drake performance venue, which opened its doors late last month. The Drake meets a long-recognized need for a live-performance venue and it is expected to bring people to Amherst from across this region and well beyond, said Gould, adding that it will likely be a catalyst for more new businesses.
“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses. In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”
But the Drake is far from the only addition to the landscape, she noted, adding that there are new restaurants, retail shops, and more, bringing an ever-more-eclectic mix of businesses to downtown that will make that area more of a destination.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on Amherst, which was hit very hard by the pandemic, but is moving on from that two-year nightmare is every way imaginable.
On the Town
As part of the effort to bring Amherst out of the COVID era, the Chamber and BID began a campaign to promote Amherst as a destination titled “What’s Next? Amherst Area.”
Pazmany explained that this campaign promotes the quality of life in Amherst and surrounding areas.
“We focus on three things: the outdoor adventures available here, our iconic cultural institutions — think colleges and the Emily Dickenson Museum — and the ability to have a global dining experience among our restaurants,” she said.
Global dining is more than hyperbole, as downtown Amherst lists 43 restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world. Each one has an intriguing story.
Indeed, Antonio Marquez moved from Guadalajara, Mexico to Amherst because his wife’s family lives there. As he researched where to open his restaurant, Mexcalito Taco Bar, Marquez considered several towns in the Pioneer Valley and credits destiny for making Amherst his choice.
“This is the best spot for us because we have a family connection here and we like the fact that Amherst is a university community,” Marquez said.
While Mexcalito was ready for business prior to the pandemic, Marquez held off when the world shut down and decided instead to open in July 2021. Now 10 months in business, Marquez said his goal with Mexcalito is for customers to learn something new about Mexican culture through the eatery’s food and drinks.
“When people come in, they feel a different ambience, hear different music,” Marquez said. “We’re looking to do more with sophisticated Mexican cuisine and we will be adding 20 new drinks to our cocktail menu.”
He added that Amherst is the right place for Mexcalito and appreciates his relationship with the town. “We’re feeling like we fit here, it’s pretty cool.”
The broad goal moving forward is create more of these ‘fits,’ said Gould and Pazmany, noting that the Drake is another intriguing example.
That facility fills the need for a music venue for downtown, said Gould, adding that her mindset as she tries to help bring other new businesses to the town is to meet other identified needs.
“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses,” Gould said. “In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”
That strategy is reflected in the 13 businesses that are opening in the next few months. Among the businesses Gould hopes to see are a fish market, a brewery, and a breakfast/lunch café.
“I have a list of businesses Amherst needs,” Gould said. “We don’t have them yet, but we’re working on it.”
While the business community is rebounding from COVID, the real estate boom that began during the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down in Amherst.
An outdated perception of Amherst is that only college students and retirees lived there, said Pazmany, adding that these days, when a house goes up for sale real estate agents are bombarded with at least a dozen cash offers, all above the asking price.
“Because the pandemic has allowed a number of people to work from anywhere, many are choosing Amherst for the quality of life it offers,” Pazmany said. “One realtor told me most of her clients are people who grew up here and are returning.”
In a good news/bad news twist, UMass and Amherst College are contributing to the housing shortage as both keep moving up academic ranking lists.
“We’re seeing people from literally all over the world who want to do their post-graduate work at UMass,” Gould said. “That means they need somewhere to live.”
And the town intends to use some the $9.8 million it has received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to help such people find a place. Indeed, $2 million has been earmarked to begin to address some of the affordable housing concerns in the community.
Housing was just one of many priorities identified by the town as it went about gathering information and soliciting opinions on how to spend ARPA monies, said Paul Bockelman, town administrator, adding that the public and key stakeholders identified 17 different areas to address.
Amherst at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1759
Area: 27.7 square miles
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
With the projects finalized this past November, Bockelman reported progress in using the ARPA funds in areas such as filling firefighter and paramedic positions, as well as adding a position in public health. The ARPA funds also included a $750,000 allocation for economic development, specifically to support the creation of the Drake.
As for other developments in town, a $36 million project is underway to renovate and expand the historic Jones Library. Plans call for maintaining the stone exterior while adding space and making it one of the most environmentally efficient buildings in town.
Not far from Jones Library, the Emily Dickenson Museum has a $6 million renovation underway. When the museum re-opens later this year, it will display a collection of period furniture and costumes used in the Apple TV series Dickenson. The show’s producers bought actual period pieces for the show and offered them to the museum at the end of the series shooting.
“The TV show has brought Emily Dickenson to a whole new generation who are now obsessed with her,” Gould said.
For all the good things happening, both Gould and Pazmany admit that Amherst’s business community faces the same challenges every municipality faces, from supply chain issues to inflation to the ongoing workforce crisis.
“As restaurants are still staffing up, they are doing what they can, even if it means reduced hours instead of being open all the time,” Pazmany said. “As they are working through it, we’re asking everyone be patient during these times.”
While outdoor dining saved many restaurants from going under, Gould pointed out that most outdoor set-ups were thrown together with a few jersey barriers and no budget. The BID has received a grant to run a pilot program with several restaurants to show what outdoor dining looks like when it’s done right.
“If we can show the community how this looks when it’s done properly, we can encourage more permanent outdoor dining destinations,” said Gould.
One more challenge, she noted, involves encouraging people to set aside the “add to cart” option of having everything delivered. Instead, she suggested that consumers go out and meet a shopkeeper.
“You can walk into a store and make a human connection,” Gould said. “Amazon was a safety net when we needed it but we can now go down the street to browse.”
The Bottom Line
Pazmany added that a new breed of entrepreneurs is opening shops in Amherst.
“There’s a revival of people who want to be business owners,” she said. “They are proud to be here and eager to help.”
Both women look forward to the positive changes that are taking shape in the next couple of years.
“When I think of Amherst in 2023 and 2024, I see a new way of life that is refreshed and yet remains historic,” Gould said. “We do everything we can to keep the town beautiful, but it needs a face lift, and we’re excited because it’s about to happen.”