“A Few Questions For…” is an occasional feature of The Indy, aimed at helping our readers get to know the folks who are making things happen in our town. We’ll be featuring members of our town government, key town employees, people who lead civic organizations, activists, local educators, prominent volunteers, and residents who are not necessarily well known. This week we feature a conversation with the new executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), Gabrielle Gould.
Gabrielle Gould moved to Amherst almost a year ago. She is widely traveled and has a thorough background in music, theater, and the performing arts as well as non-profit management. This past August she was hired as executive director for the BID.
Gabrielle has the personality and skills to maintain the ambience of Amherst while helping it step lively and keep up with the times. And she’s a natural for bridging some of the gaps between people here who seem to support growth-no-matter-what and are OK with Soviet-era and international-style architecture, and those who consistently speak up for affordability, social justice, neighborhoods, and a simpler, earthier aesthetic.
Funded by local businesses, UMass, and Amherst College, the BID hopes to enliven Amherst center in a way that works for local businesses, residents, and visitors. This includes special projects and events, better maintenance, access and accessibility, pedestrian conveniences, beautification, parking, and practical support.
The office, which includes Ann Tweedy and Andrew McLean, is part of the Amherst Visitor’s Center, 35 South Pleasant Street, the storefront near Hastings that recently installed a metal wheelchair ramp. For more information, go to https://www.amherstdowntown.com/
Indy: You and your family looked all over the country before deciding that Amherst is the right place for you, partly because of your background in music and theater. What drew you here? Do you see it as a “college town”?
Gabrielle Gould: One of the many reasons we fell in love with this town and decided we wanted to be here and raise our two teenage boys here, is that it is a college town. Not a sports-driven college town, a cultural college town. This community is fantastically arts-driven. The Mead Museum, the Hitchcock Center, the Beneski Museum…these are museums that we brought our kids to long before we decided to move here. They knew every dinosaur’s name and were able to walk on the dinosaur footprints, how amazing is that?
And the vibrancy the students bring is quite remarkable. I understand that there was a wild period—my husband was a UMass student—when there were loud parties, destructive parties. Kids are still having parties, but things like the registration system are working. I hear it’s been a kind of great year in terms of police calls, for instance. I meet every month with the police, fire department staff, and UMass, and the emergency calls related to students are way down, which is wonderful.
Yes, I read a report that a high percentage of emergency calls now are for older adults, not students! Is there a dynamic symbiosis between full-time residents and the colleges?
I think everyone in the BID and Chamber of Commerce, the downtown businesses, would agree with that. It’s a shock after the nice, calm, quiet summer to have all the cars coming back and kids walking up from campus, and people on some streets might see twenty kids out there—and they’re laughing and they’re loud. But I think it keeps us alive!
Have you looked into what other college towns are doing that works and what doesn’t work?
I have done some of that and will do more, I’m sure. I really think the cultural aspect is something we need to emphasize and grow. My goal is that a year and a half from now, I’ll be in a quaint little town somewhere and see a shop that I think is just absolutely beautiful, and I’ll walk into it and say to the owner, “You need to open a satellite store in downtown Amherst and you will thrive there!” I think the key is to have 200 people on the Common on a Friday night…or 400 people on the Common on Friday night seeing something remarkable—music, theatre, performance, a lot more public art. I think the town would benefit greatly from a couple of festivals…a “wet paint weekend” with artists creating visual art here, the public being invited to participate…a one-day outdoor music festival when we have a stage built.
I think of Amherst Cinema as our “anchor” place…
They are so fantastic! Carol [Johnson, executive director] talks a lot about parking being a problem there.
Don’t get me going—there were two reports saying we have enough spaces but need better signage, lighting, maintenance, and if we made it known that permits are seasonal and daytime only, and if we had shared usage of privately owned lots…not enough free spots for short stops…meter feeding by people who work in Amherst Center…
I went to those meetings and there were some things that were not factual, which is the kind of thing that always makes me step back and wonder. It’s a perceptual problem. We need better way-finding to know where the parking is. Literally! How confusing is it, behind Amherst Cinema, to figure out what spaces you have to pay for, which ones are free. Lighting is a huge issue, like in the lot behind CVS at night. I wouldn’t want my daughter to park there at night. It’s also true that one Saturday night we drove around for 25 minutes to find a parking spot—but, actually, we also had to wait 20 minutes for a table so it must have been a busy, crazy evening.
What was not factual in the report?
Little, tiny things, like it says the BID offers some free parking, and we do not. And the towns they compared us to were not comparable. Like Pasadena, California; Portland, Oregon; Portland, Maine. I can think of towns we’re comparable to, not those.
What towns, in terms of parking, are comparable?
Perhaps Manchester, Vermont in its heyday, or Brattleboro, Vermont in its heyday. Northampton parking—by the way, I don’t agree with the Northampton envy I hear from some people, like “Why can’t we be more like Northampton?” That’s crazy. This is a fantastic place. Let’s be happy to be here!
Exactly. We’re a college town, with a large university as well as two small colleges. But getting back to parking?
There are some very very serious perception issues about parking here, and there are some very real issues, too, like the report mentioned. I’ll say 98 percent of business owners I’ve met want to talk about parking. We’re doing a lot of listening right now and trying to figure out what we can do to assist and grow our businesses, and I’d rather build a privately-funded parking garage that costs the taxpayers nothing, and have the BID manage that, and have the entire Town Commons be parking-free. I would love it if the streets didn’t need on-street parking, and if those places could be used for things like gardens, outdoor seating for pedestrians, for cafes and restaurants.
We’re doing some things to help our businesses here, like taking photos of our storefronts in daylight and night time, and sitting down with the businesses and showing them, and figuring out how maybe we can help them look more inviting. String lights, new awnings…
Who would be coming to those cafes?
If you look at having a lot of public art and a performance shell for performance art, like Pilobolus dance company, a great theater troupe, outstanding jazz performances, rock and roll— and festivals!—Amherst is a destination, not a drive-by or drive-through.
I’m meeting with the university and colleges, I’m meeting with museums here and talking about how we can bring people into town, how can people going to the Eric Carle Museum or the Hitchcock Center—it’s one of only nineteen “living buildings” in the world and people come there from all over the world to see it—after their visit there come to Amherst proper. Can the Hitchcock Center help make a rain garden here? We need to start to cross-pollinate the amazing things we have here.
Please, not another listening or visioning session! We’ve had so many, and none of them seemed to come to anything.
Well, I’ve met with every Town Council member numerous times in person, and have presented in front of the Council, and I think we can all come together and start to drive some things, like bringing the performing arts here, having a place for the arts, having beautifully programmed events.
What colleges and host towns are succeeding together in that way?
Burlington, Vermont is amazing. I think Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida does a great job. University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Boulder, Colorado, is phenomenal, a great integration. But I think Amherst is its own remarkable town. I’m researching other college towns and New England towns to “borrow” ideas from, but have yet to see a town that says, “This is what we are!”
I’ve heard that Amherst actually makes it hard for businesses to open. I’ve personally seen restaurants get ready to open and then nothing happens for a long time. What’s that about?
I’ve heard that absolutely. I’m going to say that we have a new town—that is, a new Town Council—and a licensing commission, and hopefully that will lead to removing some of the arduous layers.
And I’ll be the loud voice in the room! I’ll be there for business owners or people looking at having businesses here who are having trouble. We’ll be saying, “What can we do to help you? If you feel something is punitive or arduous, come and talk to me, and I’ll go to the Planning Board, the Zoning Board, I’ll talk to the board of health, I’ll say to them, ‘Why are we doing it this way? What’s going on here?'” Geoff Kravitz [Economic Development Director since 2015] and others have worked on streamlining the process of opening a business so that now you can go to Town Hall and say, “What do I need?” and it isn’t hunting and pecking for regulations, figuring out the steps along the way. The different inspectors are very communicative now, maybe they weren’t in years past.
Our job as a BID will be, if we continue to hear that it’s terrible to try to open here, to go to the town and say, “If you want people to come here, we need to do something to change this.”
We’re working on the licensing commission so that we can have events like many of our neighboring communities with draft beer, cider, wine available on their common areas and in their green spaces. Easthampton and Hadley are doing beautifully with this. Hadley is having beer gardens down on its gorgeous strip of green in the summer. They have three or four beer tents. Music, kids running around, food tents. Something like the Taste of Amherst. A farm-to-table dinner at Kendrick Park that includes wine and beer, a beautiful long table all the way down the park, imagine! We have an amazing international community here, how about an international food festival on the Commons, how amazing would that be? I’ve met someone here who made 800 empanadas for a school event as if it was nothing unusual for her. Every Council member is excited to see this town do things that keep appearing on those vision boards [poster papers at listening sessions and public forums].
How about the different languages people speak here? We could have computer kiosks with information translated into a hundred languages. You could read about restaurants or menus in whatever language you need There are ways to integrate our colleges and their visitors into our town.
It does seem as if you have programs that people like me are slow to notice. The roll of red tickets on your desk, for instance, is part of an initiative, right?
November 23 to December 21 is Red Ticket Month, encouraging people to eat and shop locally. Participating businesses here will give you a red ticket for every $25 you spend at their place. Then, at 3 p.m. on December 21, Muddy Brook Farm’s horse-drawn carriage will be filled with the matching tickets at Kendrick Park and five tickets will be picked at random, and each of the first four winners with matching numbers—and their tickets in hand—will win $250. And the final ticket will win $1,000. If someone won’t be there in person, they are encouraged to donate their tickets to a local nonprofit or give it to someone they know who will be at Kendrick Park event. There’ll be a hot cocoa crawl up North Pleasant later, with a Dixieland swing band, Prone to Mischief, leading the way. It will be family-friendly, for all ages.
We’re going to continue and expand an event called Jamherst, two or three days and nights of free live music, all styles from punk to classical, all over the downtown area, and also there’ll be a component of “the art of noise,” music or noise in unusual places, like a classical violinist in the Boltwood tunnel. What if there are musicians on top of Amherst Coffee? I was in Wilmington, North Carolina and there was so much music but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, until I looked up, and it was coming from the rooftops nearby! We’re going to move Jamherst from the end of winter to Arts Week, the beginning of May. I also think this town needs a PRIDE parade, and it has to be when the students are here.
Do you think street food vendors help make a place feel alive?
You’ve mentioned the importance of an outdoor performance shell. Could you explain that?
When I brought the idea before the Town Council, they said, “This is nothing new, it’s been on the docket for awhile.” But when I said that it needs to come with a maintenance fund, their shoulders went down, down [with relief]! You can’t just build new and then ignore maintenance for thirty years. I love that these Town Councilors are so aware of that. The last thing this Town needs is for someone to come in, build something, and then go, “OK, great, we’re done.” We can get a grant for something new, but not for maintenance, you need to plan for maintenance.
It’s hard to get agreement, but to have a good place for outdoor performances, we have to agree that it needs to be acoustically perfect. If it seats three-quarters of an orchestra and is acoustically perfect, isn’t that amazing? If we can have opera singers, how amazing is that? If it can have a beautiful Marley dance floor put down, and dancers can come here without a second thought? A grid where lights can hang so we can have theater? The ability to pull down a screen for a film? What if we did an Emily Dickinson theater event…what if students at the high school or PVPA could perform here? A green roof or something else that’s innovative and environmental, something people here will really like. Of course, it has to sustain itself.
Speaking of Emily Dickinson, have you happened to see the new series on AppleTV+, Dickinson? Do you think it will attract a new generation of Emily Dickinson fans, people who will want to come to Amherst?
Yes. It’s fantastic! I haven’t seen all of it yet and don’t want to subscribe to anything else. People all over the world adore Emily Dickinson, and there’s huge potential that this series will get a new generation excited about her and about Amherst.
There are such amazing illustrators and authors here, historic and contemporary—The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Phantom Tollbooth, books my children grew up on and love. People are excited to see things happen here. We just need to help make them happen.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Indy. I hope people here with differing points of view about local issues will be able to come together for a vibrant, affordable, and “woke” town.