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These Amherst Leaders Work in Partnership to Build a Stronger Community

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

March 13, 2020.

Both Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould remember that date, and they say they’re not likely to ever forget it.

It was the day when Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) received word that the Downtown Amherst Foundation she created had officially received its 501(c)(3) status. But that long-awaited good news was rendered all but moot by what else was happening that day — the shutting down of the Commonwealth by Gov. Charlie Baker as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Bay State and the first deaths were being reported.

“I was thinking, ‘I did all this work to create this foundation that was going to do all these amazing things, and now we’re in lockdown, and we’re not going to be doing anything,’” Gould recalled.

She and Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, who share space in the chamber offices on South Pleasant Street in the heart of the community’s downtown, remember walking out the door together that afternoon, turning off the lights, and setting the heat at 56 degrees as they went.

What they were walking into … well, they had no idea, really.

Turns out, they were walking into what would become a deep (or deeper, to be more precise) and quite extraordinary partnership, through which they would help lead a community that was devasted by the pandemic perhaps more than any other in this region, and maybe the entire state, out of that darkness.

A partnership that makes them true Difference Makers in the Greater Amherst area.

Working separately on some initiatives, but hand-in-hand in most all others, they have helped change the landscape in Amherst and its downtown in all kinds of ways, as we’ll see. But they are also being honored for ensuring that the landscape didn’t change more than it did. Indeed, it is through their efforts that many businesses were able to survive that storm.

“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership,” Pazmany said of the early days of the pandemic. “And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”

By Gould’s count, Amherst “lost more than 45,000 people overnight” that fateful day in March 2020. That number includes students at the three colleges that call the community home — UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College — but also thousands of people who came to work at those institutions and other businesses in town. It also includes tourists who wouldn’t be coming, parents of students and alumni who wouldn’t be attending sporting events or anything else, visiting lecturers who wouldn’t be on campus, performing artists who wouldn’t be coming … you get the idea.

“It was a devastating time, but from that, we forged this great partnership. And we put our collective talents and resources together to put information out there and help people and businesses in need. It was remarkable to see how people came together in that time of crisis.”

In the wake of this exodus, businesses were left dazed and looking for some kind of answers — and any kind of help. Pazmany and Gould helped provide both, with everything from PPE (which they delivered themselves) to virtual ‘tip jars’ to help those out of work; from small-business microgrants to grant-application coaching. They bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of meals from restaurants and gift cards and other items from businesses to both help them survive and assist families and individuals in need.

With this assistance, and their own sheer will to survive, many businesses have made it through the pandemic and to the other side.

But this story, this partnership, is not just about COVID and helping businesses ride out that storm. Indeed, it’s an ongoing story of bringing new businesses and new vibrancy to downtown Amherst and beyond. Businesses like the live-performance venue known as the Drake, an initiative of the Downtown Amherst Foundation, which, in less than a year, has brought roughly 1,000 performers and more than 15,000 patrons to the community.

Claudia Pazmany arranges meals

Claudia Pazmany arranges meals that were bought from Amherst-area restaurants and given to those in need as part of the Dinner Delights program staged during the height of the pandemic.

This informal partnership’s philosophy is summed up in a branded campaign launched in 2021 and funded by a Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism grant, called, appropriately, “What’s Next? Greater Amherst.” It includes a YouTube video and a website — www.greateramherst.com — that highlights the natural beaty, global cuisine, and arts and culture in the community and helps people who are planning a visit.

“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close.”

Overall, these partners continue to work to make Greater Amherst both a destination and a place to put down business roots. Thanks to them, what’s next is more creative programing, more opportunities for growth, and more vibrancy.

And that makes them true Difference Makers.


The Power of Two

Returning to the dark days of the start of the pandemic — and they were dark … the lights literally went out in downtown Amherst — isn’t exactly easy for Gould and Pazmany.

These were extraordinary and, in many ways, desperate times when business just stopped. There was a great deal of uncertainty about what would happen, they recalled, and for several weeks after the state was shut down, businesses suffered mightily.

But as they looked back, these two partners said that was also a time of what could, in some ways, be called triumph, when people, and a community, reached down deep to find ways to support one another and help them through that darkness.

Stamell Stringed Instruments

Stamell Stringed Instruments was one of dozens of Amherst-area businesses to receive gifts of PPE — free safety posters, gloves, sanitizer, and more — as a part of the #IAMherst campaign, through monies raised through the Downtown Amherst Foundation.

Before we elaborate on that, let’s set the stage by talking about the two organizations and their missions.

Like several other communities in the area, Amherst has both a chamber and a business-improvement district. The former, as most know, exists to promote and support businesses, and it does this through everything from advocacy (at the local, state, regional, and national levels) to education and providing forums for businesses to gather, network, learn, and perhaps do business with one another.

The BID, meanwhile, is charged with everything from cleaning up downtown and watering the plants growing from hanging baskets to handling holiday lighting displays and marketing the community through initiatives such as Destination Amherst.

But it was during the pandemic that the two organizations really came together, pooled their resources, and put their various skills sets to work.

Pazmany and Gould were working remotely at the time — the chamber office, like most businesses, was closed — but they were together often, working long days (and a great many nights) to help businesses. Here are just some examples of what they were able to do together:

• Raise close to a half-million dollars and distribute what became known as Relief and Resiliency microgrants to 67 small businesses throughout Amherst, the lion’s share of the money coming from residents, with donations from $25 to $50,000;

• Buy bulk PPE (masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and more) at a time when it was difficult for businesses to attain it, and deliver it to businesses;

• Create a virtual tip jar so residents could support the many who were out of work — rom artists to hairdressers to bartenders;

• Launch the Dinner Delights program, through which the two agencies raised more than $100,000 and used those finds to purchase dinners and lunches from area restaurants to keep them in business, and hand out the meals to families in need;

• Provide those same families with gift bags filled with toys, puzzles, and gift cards purchased from a wide array of businesses — from hair salons to convenience stores — to help those small ventures;

• Continue some time-honored traditions, albeit virtually, such as the lighting of the Merry Maple, a maple tree on the North Common, during the holidays;

• Encourage takeout business at a time when the restaurants needed it and when there was some resistance to such efforts from the colleges and elsewhere in the community;

• Register close to 200 individuals within the business community, including many for whom English is their second language, for vaccination; and

• Provide assistance with state and federal grants. Together, by Gould’s estimates, they were able to help businesses secure more than $2.1 million in state and federal grants by sitting down with them and helping them write grants.

“Without our collaborative help and willingness to sit in these offices at 7 o’clock at night with business owners with masks on and help them upload their documents and write grants, I think you would have seen a lot more businesses throughout Amherst close,” Gould said. “While many people were at home staying safe, which they should have been doing, Claudia and I came to work every day; we showed up, we went out in public, we hand-delivered grants.”

Pazmany agreed, noting that both agencies looked beyond their respective missions and beyond the downtown itself to help a decimated community at a time of dire need.

Gabrielle Gould and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould and Claudia Pazmany have worked tirelessly to promote Amherst and the surrounding area as a destination.
Leah Martin Photography

“We all had PPE in our cars for two months — and we delivered it door-to-door,” she recalled. “I looked beyond my membership, and she looked beyond the downtown, and together we were able to look at the collective impact of our shared work around the entire town of Amherst.”

As significant as the work during the pandemic was, this partnership, as noted earlier, is about much more than those efforts.

Indeed, it’s about ongoing work to put Greater Amherst on the map and make it even more of a destination for visitors and home for businesses of all kinds. Here again, the agencies have worked independently of one another, but mostly in concert, to get a number of things done.

Things like the Drake, a venue that has brought people from across New England and beyond to downtown Amherst and provides ample proof of the power of the arts as an economic-development engine.

“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development,” Pazmany told BusinessWest. “And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”


Bottom Line

Looking ahead, Gould said the BID is working on several initiatives, including a spring block party in the downtown with a focus and arts and culture, a summer music series on the Commons, revitalization of the North Common, and creation of more anchors in the downtown.

As for the chamber, Pazmany said a great amount of momentum was generated in 2022 as a number of popular events, from After 5 gatherings to the annual fundraiser Margarita Madness, returned to the calendar. The goal for 2023 is to build on this momentum, generate new membership, and continue to support businesses across Greater Amherst.

“I truly believe that arts and culture in a community builds economic development. And it builds reasons for people to come to your community and be part of your community, to want to live here and do business here.”

“For us, it’s getting back to what we normally do as a chamber,” she explained. “We’re focusing on getting all our events back, making them better than ever, and connecting businesses.”

Gould told BusinessWest that she’s learned that Amherst’s response to the pandemic — the various programs created and carried out by the chamber and the BID — has been hailed as one of the best in the Commonwealth and a model of cooperation and innovation for other communities to follow.

Likewise, the Drake project has become a model itself — of how an organization like the BID can take a concept, raise the money needed, and make it a reality, all in roughly a year’s time.

Pazmany and Gould weren’t thinking about creating models or case studies when they undertook these programs. They were thinking about their community, and how to make it stronger, more resilient, and more of a destination. The fact that they have become models for other towns is testimony to the high levels of imagination, determination, and perseverance these two have brought to their ongoing work.

And that explains why they are Difference Makers.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany have presided over many grand openings in downtown Amherst in recent months, testimony to the community’s comeback from the pandemic.


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.

Paul Bockelman

Paul Bockelman says housing is just one of many priorities that have emerged in discussions about how to best spend ARPA funds.

“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.”


House Money

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
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

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.”