Opinion: Seeking A More Strategic Approach To Economic Development

Amherst Cinema. Photo: amherstcinema.org

Meg Gage

Listening to the many debates and controversies about development in Amherst and the Zoning Bylaw, I am struck by how tactical the discussions are, focusing on things like building standards and not enough on what we need inside the buildings. We’re missing a strategy! The rules of the game are not enough – we need to agree on the goal of the game and a strategy for winning the game.

Imagine teaching someone to play chess by only telling them where the pieces go!

Looking at how successful towns our size have built vibrant and economically healthy downtowns, we need to look at how people spend money and what gets them out of their comfy homes and away from their screens in the 21st century. I believe it is the arts, entertainment, and culture. 

There is a concept in economics called “the creative economy,” popularized by economist John Howkins in 2001. Research has shown a multiplier effect of investments in the arts in stimulating other economic development. Because of inadequate measures of the impact of culture and the arts, the numbers vary on what that multiplier is, but it is well-established that investing in the arts and cultural activities stimulates other economic activity. Imagine downtown Amherst without Amherst Cinema. 

North Adams is an excellent case in point. In 1998, the year before Mass MOCA opened had an unemployment rate of over 18 percent. Last year, before the pandemic, it was just above 4 percent. Now North Adams sports high end restaurants, fancy bed and breakfasts, public art, and a cleaned-up city-scape. 

Amherst faces a particular risk and therefore a challenge: if economic development is motivated only by what is currently profitable according to existing market forces, i.e. just putting the chess pieces on the board and then see what happens, we will have a downtown and economic development devoted entirely to the short-term wants and needs of undergraduates. 

In the early 2000s, Northampton became the cool place to go – live music venues, professional summer theater, art galleries, and concerts. That sparked a number of excellent restaurants and high-end shops. Then Easthampton became cool with its version of cultural development. Amherst could be the next western Mass cultural mecca if we focus on that. There is significant dedicated funding for the arts from both private and public sources. Partnerships are possible between developers and nonprofit organizations, as we saw with the creation of Amherst Cinema. And the colleges are great potential non-profit partners as well. 

Imagine live music in the old Bertucci’s building – like the Iron Horse only with better food. Imagine live theater in the downtown Fire Station after the new station is built. A renovated Bank of America building, developed through a for-profit/nonprofit partnership, could support small shops on the first floor, a la Thornes, helping small businesses by providing shared overhead and reducing costs, with rehearsal and community arts spaces on the second and third floors. LSSE could expand its arts programming with more dedicated space. 

Let’s do it!

Meg Gage

Meg Gage is the now-retired founding director of the Peace Development Fund and the Proteus Fund, national organizations based in Amherst that organize within philanthropy to advance campaigns related to peace, human rights and democracy.   She is a graduate of ARHS and taught at the high school. She served on the recent Charter Commission and is currently the Chair of the Participatory Budgeting Commission and on the Planning Team of the District One Neighborhood Association (DONA).

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