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
Area: 27.7 square miles
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.”
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]