By Nick Grabbe
We lost Judie’s, Bart’s Ice Cream and the Lone Wolf during the pandemic. Amherst Yoga, the High Horse and M&M Links are also gone. Head Games, Amherst Barbers and Lit are all in the past. Amherst Copy & Designworks has relocated to Hadley.
A series of microgrants helped keep other struggling downtown businesses afloat during the pandemic, paid for mostly with private fundraising. A.J. Hastings’ business was down 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and Amherst Books’ business was down even more.
But now things are looking up. Negotiations to bring a food store and a music and performance venue to downtown Amherst are under way. Powerhouse Nutrition has opened at the Bart’s site, Mexcalito’s taco bar has opened where Shiru and Rao’s Coffee used to be, and Garcia’s restaurant is opening soon at the former Bertucci’s location. The Spoke, La Veracruzana and Go Berry are expanding their offerings, and two new restaurants called Protocol and Hazel’s Kitchen are preparing menus. Downtown is even getting a lingerie shop on Main Street called Art of Intimates.
The post-pandemic renaissance in downtown Amherst was recently highlighted on Capitol Hill by Mike Kenneally, the Massachusetts secretary of housing and economic development. Kenneally held up Amherst as a model of a town addressing the economic challenges created by the pandemic.
To learn more about these downtown initiatives, I sat down with Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District, and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. They said that although much has been accomplished, some key decisions are coming up.
“It’s amazing what we could create here,” said Gould. “The forward momentum could proceed if politics doesn’t get in the way.”
Amherst has always taken comfort in the stability provided by the University of Massachusetts and the colleges, and when they were mostly shut down during the pandemic, we were reminded of how vital they are to the local economy. Now UMass is expanding its retail and restaurant offerings on campus, creating a new challenge for downtown businesses.
One answer is to bring more people to town. Using a $116,655 state grant, the Chamber has launched a marketing campaign to draw people from outside the area to Amherst’s hiking trails and museums as well as our campuses. A video promoting tourism on digital platforms and showing things to do here has had two million views, Pazmany said.
“The fact is, this is an incredibly beautiful place to live and visit and should be a destination for people,” said Gould. “The goal is to have people be here for more than a dropoff of students.”
The popular new playground at Kendrick Park already provides a destination for parents of young children. Plans for a live music and performance space at the former High Horse site will be detailed in a future post on this blog. Outdoor dining is due to continue next year.
Gould presented plans for a bandshell on the Town Common – to be paid for by the non-profit Downtown Amherst Foundation – to a supportive Town Council on Monday. And the project to beautify the northern part of the Town Common is proceeding.
The BID engaged a consultancy called Civic Moxie to advise on strategies for pandemic recovery. Its recommendations included investing in arts and culture, making zoning more business-friendly, and helping to navigate the permitting process at Town Hall.
But a complete renaissance “hangs in the balance,” Gould said. The election on Nov. 2 will determine whether the Jones Library expansion and renovation project can proceed and whether there will be a two-thirds majority on the Town Council for zoning changes to revitalize downtown. The Town Council will vote on a proposed zoning change would make possible a parking garage behind the CVS store. More spaces are due to be created on the eastern side of North Pleasant Street through angled parking. Gould supports all these initiatives.
There will never again be a full supermarket in downtown Amherst, but there could be enough people living downtown to support a food store, Gould said. Negotiations are ongoing with a business seeking to operate a store selling dairy, fish, meat, eggs and other food supplies at a specific location.
“Talk about a game-changer,” Gould said.
The two controversial five-story apartment buildings in the northern part of downtown have provided an increased density that promotes commerce, she said. Graduate students are stepping outside these buildings to go to Henion’s bakery, and young professors are bringing their shoes to Paul’s shoe repair store, she said.
“We could turn this into a highly-sought-after place to visit, to live, retire and raise families,” Gould said. “But it would be hard to convince business owners to come to a downtown that’s anti-development.”