Envisioning Amherst as a model of rural economic revival

By Kristin Leutz

With students back and campus life in full swing, it may be easy to forget how the pandemic rocked our town’s economy. We faced the stark possibility of a seismic shift in our economic bedrock, and while we’re emerging from the moment of crisis, we must prepare to thrive in the face of disruptions in our future.

Whether from climate change, economic upheaval, or future pandemics, we are likely to face serious challenges to the jobs and economic foundations we’ve known here in Amherst. Now is the best time to envision how Amherst could serve as a model for how college towns should develop resilient and sustainable local economies.

Photo credit Hospitalityonline.com

Amherst should be thinking now about who will live and work here in the years to come. Our population growth is flat, our housing is experiencing the real estate inflation that is happening in many places, and development of any type is the subject of perennial debate in town, often making new projects tricky to launch here. Our tax base places ever more pressure on the fragile model of funding critical public infrastructure via property tax revenue.

Meanwhile, the active citizens in town tend to favor debates about a new parking garage, rather than engaging in planning and dialogue about long-term steps we should take now to envision a thriving rural town in the coming generation.

Today, the largest employment industry sectors here are education, health care and social services. Will our workforce continue to grow and meet the needs of these legacy industries? Or will we fail at the challenge of attracting new, diverse people to town? Today, we are producers of highly educated, talented workers who spent their educational years here, only to finish and depart the Valley to find jobs elsewhere. Tomorrow, we could create pathways to prevent brain drain and encourage educated workers to stay after school or return to work and raise families here in greater numbers. To do this, we need to aim our sights toward a revival that could center college towns like Amherst in the dawn of a new form of economic development. 

The picture tomorrow in Amherst could be entrepreneur-centered, a mecca for talented people who benefit from reskilling programs through our higher education institutions, apprenticeships at local companies and nonprofits, and incentives for students who create businesses and stay here to grow them. As other college towns have done, we could also offer incentives to remote workers who could choose our town and find friendly shared workspaces, and speedy, affordable internet.

We don’t have to search for ideas on how to make this happen. The Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) at Cornell University convened representatives from college towns across the U.S. with national thought leaders in innovation and economic development to discuss the post-pandemic future of college towns. Among their recommendations was to focus on innovation by developing clusters of “complementary” businesses and workers in Amherst that can support the future of work in industry sectors that are already strong here today.

If we dream accordingly, we might envision how, with the amount of talent and investment in higher education in this town, Amherst could become a hub for EdTech development. Or with the amount of open land and farms, coupled with a Ph.D Food Science school and Ag Tech experts, perhaps we could lead in AgroTech innovation? Entrepreneurship and innovation-focused economic development are key to this forward-looking thinking.

Currently, the proposed town budget has allocated $750,000 towards investment in economic development. Thankfully, due to excellent collaboration between our local Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce, our net small business presence in town is steady, as new places tend to fill vacancies in town when old favorites close their door. They will work with the town to allocate those dollars. Yet, this amount of investment is barely a start to truly catalyze, support, and fund small business owners and future high-growth entrepreneurs.

The town has been without a professional dedicated to economic development. Even if this kind of resource is restored in this budget, such a professional would have to hit the ground running to meet deferred needs and coordinate with the regional economic ecosystem. The staffs of the BID and the Chamber are mighty and wonderful, but they are small and working on tight budgets to meet current needs. Who is giving them resources, time, and talent to effectively build for the future? Our regional Economic Development Council is working across a diverse and wide stretch of the Pioneer Valley and cannot focus on Amherst as a priority. 

As involved town citizens, we are the ones who can step in to become more active and engaged. We should educate ourselves on the proposed budget and encourage the town to make this investment for us so we can find ways to plug into these efforts to lend our own expertise and lived experience to the process of building the future economy. 

What should we ask as we dive into this process? Is Amherst a friendly place in which to start a new business? Does it attract and retain a talented workforce ready to spend and live in ways that build collective value? Do we take the fullest possible advantage of the fact that we host a large land grant public university with one of the highest nationally ranked business schools? Do we have the right kind of access to capital and technical support to help bridge the systemic inequities that place barriers to entrepreneurship for underrepresented populations? When we think about what it might take to begin making shifts to prepare for changing economic futures, we need to ask these questions and more.

Isenberg School of Management at UMass

Now is the time to get involved.  Visit the Engage Amherst website. Sign up to attend the public budget hearing on May 16. Sign up for a Chamber of Commerce event and meet local business owners to find out how you can help their daily challenges. And if you have skills a business owner could use, consider volunteering to become a mentor. Everyone has a role to play in our future economy.