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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]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress in its commerce centers and with green-energy projects.

Palmer’s leaders see the town as a destination — and hope the myriad players investigating east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts view it the same way.

That’s why the Palmer Town Council recently established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study — and prepare a report on — the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer, to be submitted to the state advisory committee currently looking into the feasibility of expanded east-west passenger service.

Those efforts included a recent meeting with community members to brainstorm about the pros and cons of the entire concept of east-west rail and Palmer’s place on any proposed line.

“Originally, the discussion was to have a relatively high-speed east-west route between, say, Boston and Springfield, or Boston, Worcester, Springfield,” said Charlie Blanchard, Palmer’s town manager. “If you add a stop in Palmer, what does it do to the timing? In fact, the timing doesn’t change that much. But the big benefit would be more ridership coming in or getting off the train, which would be a big deal.”

In a recent letter to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who attended the community meeting, Blanchard pointed out that Palmer is roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to Amherst — and to institutions like UMass Amherst and Amherst College — and south to Storrs and the University of Connecticut. In short, it’s a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y
* Latest information available

Furthermore, the absence of a stop in what’s nicknamed the Town of Seven Railroads would mean commuters from the Quaboag region who want to travel by train to Boston would have to drive roughly 40 minutes per day to use Springfield’s Union Station or slightly more to access Worcester. Participants at the meeting believed Palmer-area residents would be loath to do either, limiting total ridership at a time when the state would be clamoring to maximize it.

In addition, “a train stop in Palmer would be a major stimulus in helping to provide quality housing for commuters at an affordable price. With the ability to commute by train, this would open up a very affordable housing market,” Blanchard wrote in his letter, adding that a stop would also stimulate the economy of a set of communities that have yet to capture the growth found to the east, while boosting Palmer’s own downtown revitalization and encouraging hospitality companies to build more lodging there.

In short, it would inject energy into a town that, while it has plenty to tout in recent years, could always use more.

Projects and Progress

Baystate Wing Hospital’s $17.2 million project to expand its Emergency Department was perhaps the town’s biggest development last year. Aimed at better supporting the current annual patient volume of 24,000 visits, the 17,800-square-foot space includes separate ambulance and public entryways and features 20 patient rooms, including trauma, behavioral health, and other dedicated specialty-care areas.

“That opened in September, and was quite a big expansion,” Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, Palmer joined the ranks of the many Western Mass. communities to welcome the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts (see story, page 6), approving its first medical-marijuana facility on Chamber Road, including a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,200 square feet of retail space. Altitude Organic Corp. will move its headquarters from Colorado to a property on Thorndike Street in Palmer as part of the development, and expects to have plants growing in an indoor facility by October.

“It really is interesting to see the public acceptance of this new type of business,” Blanchard added, noting that the town’s laws allow for three retail cannabis locations in its commercial business district. “We’re looking forward to having them and seeing how successful they can be.”

In the Three Rivers section of town, progress continues at 2032 Main St., where the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is renovating the top floor to apartments and the bottom to retail — a mixed-use plan expected to infuse new residents into the neighborhood while attracting more shoppers.

“They ran into some structural issues — it was a bigger project than they thought — but activity continues,” Blanchard said. “It was completely gutted, and they had to do some reinforcing, but now it’s back on track.”

Property and business owners in Three Rivers have been engaging in a grass-roots revitalization effort for years, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts. At the same time, the consortium known as On the Right TRACK (Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge) has been working for some time to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.

On the culinary front in town, Stables Restaurant of Hadley recently opened a new restaurant at Burgundy Brook, on Route 181 on the north side of town. “When you go by there, you see a lot of cars and a lot of activity,” Blanchard noted.

Finally, the new rail spur installed at Sherwood Lumber Yard, in the town’s industrial park — a project that has been in the works since 2013, and funded through an Industrial Rail Access Program grant — allows the business to bring in materials by train, spurring significant expansion of the operation and helping the entire industrial park by unloading without clogging up other traffic.

“Now that the rail spur is completed, there’s more activity up there,” Blanchard said. “It also helped increase the rail capacity for the rest of the businesses there.”

Powering an Economy

Palmer also continues to embrace green-energy projects. In addition to 10 large-scale solar projects — producing 29.3 megawatts of electricity every year — and the installationin early 2018 of car-charging stations at Town Hall and the public library, the town has been working with Thorndike Energy and the Microgrid Institute to explore the benefits of a microgrid system that would access the hydropower and solar power generated at Thorndike Mills for emergency power.

“Thorndike Energy has hyropower over there, and generates electricity through hydropower,” Blanchard said. “They’re going to be adding some solar to it as well. You take those two renewable sources of electricity, and you add battery or other types of standby storage, so that you can store some of this power generated through a renewable source, and have it available in the event of an emergency.”

Project objectives include improved resiliency of electrical services for critical community facilities, expanded storage capacity to better integrate local renewable energy, and supporting National Grid goals in terms of modernization, storage, and renewables. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of job growth and retention.

“Obviously, anything located at Thorndike Mills would benefit from it,” Blanchard said. “The benefit to overall economic growth would be to attract new businesses to Thorndike Mills, which right now is pretty underutilized. It would enhance their marketability to show they have this renewable stored energy there.”

It’s just one way in which Palmer is generating energy from an economic-development standpoint, and raising its profile as a destination and a connecting point to the rest of Central Mass. — a role it will continue to embrace regardless of the eventual fate of any east-west rail line.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]