Opinion: Amherst At The Crossroads

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It’s been a year since the virus that no one expected came washing over us, upending and changing things in ways we could never have imagined and could not control.  By the end of March 2020 the streets of Amherst were deserted; most businesses were shut tight, the lights were turned off, and jobs and livelihoods stood on the brink.  

And where are we, a year later?  Life is finally returning to the streets and businesses of Amherst, but it is a streetscape where the rate of change has accelerated.  Amherst’s pre-pandemic downtown was already approaching monoculture status:  our principal attraction was restaurants.  While everyone needs to eat, we found that this did not translate into essential-business status:  congregate eating was absolutely to be avoided in the pandemic.  The profit margin for restaurants is already narrow, and so these were among the first victims of the pandemic.  And when a business center is a monoculture, the economic side effects are magnified, and the road back to prosperity will be that much harder.

How did Amherst’s downtown get to this point?  Natives and long-term residents can remember a much different downtown with a wide variety of locally grown businesses.  We have complied a list of close to 50 businesses that have closed in the last 30 years.  Perhaps the most striking loss is that of Amherst’s bookstores (only one of six remains in this academic town).  Others are beloved miscellanies such as Faces and the Mercantile, computer and electronic repair shops, antique and music stores, yarn and fiber arts shops and galleries, barbershops and hair salons, and many restaurants and cafes.

Why have all these businesses closed?  Certainly there is no single reason.  Many faced insurmountable competition from the malls, and then the internet.  A lack of parking – perceived or otherwise – contributed.  Some businesses simply have a limited life span.  But in the past ten years, another important factor has been the loss of downtown retail space.  The Carriage Shops is the example that comes most readily to mind.  A former motel turned into  commercial rental spaces, it was home to about two dozen mostly locally grown businesses, many of which were long-term tenants of the downtown.  They were small, but hardly failing, and they supported local families with local dollars.  The razing of the Carriage Shops to make way for the One East Pleasant development and the consequent displacement of these businesses, combined with the seeming lack of interest and  effort by Town Hall to provide any sort of economic or relocation assistance, were the principal reasons these businesses ultimately failed.  

 One East Pleasant was presented as a project that would help revive a struggling downtown by bringing in new businesses and residents who would sustain them.  Earlier projects by the same developer, Archipelago Investments, promised similar results:  Kendrick Place, at 57 East Pleasant Street, was to be home to a satellite office of MassMutual, with 50 well-paying jobs and money to spend locally.  Surely it was natural that Town Hall would be seduced by such promises.

Yet the reality, 10 years after Archipelago Investment’s first project of Boltwood Place was proposed, has been quite different.  I frequently passed by the ground floor of Kendrick Place, and was not terribly surprised to see perhaps only five people in the MassMutual office on most occasions.  Boltwood Place, with its retail space facing the parking garage, was initially home to a jewelry store that quickly failed in its new, out-of-the-way location, and the space remained empty until one of the initial investors took it over for use as an art bar.  One East Pleasant sported signs in its ground-floor windows promising that “Rufus King” was coming soon.  Yet no one knew who he was, and he never came, and now those same windows are papered over with inspirational messages of how strong and resilient we all are.  There is a noodle shop in the same building, and while I have been assured that its noodles are fantastic, and it appears to be open, though with few customers, it simply adds to Amherst’s already dominant monoculture.

One could argue that this experiment was a greater failure than the former Carriage Shops.  A gain of one often mostly empty office, a restaurant, and a space that offers art classes does not seem to have added significant vibrancy to the downtown.  Yet Town Hall seems ready to approve more of these mixed-use buildings, with the promise of more retail space and businesses that will surely come.  Clearly the promise is seductive, as well as easy to make; the reality, however, remains both elusive and fraught with real-life difficulties that may well make its achievement an impossibility.  

While the idea of owning one’s own business is a wonderful dream, making that happen is not easy.  Statistics suggest a high failure rate:  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of new businesses fail in their first two years, and approximately 50% do not survive after five years.  Some might argue that this is as it should be:  survival of the fittest businesses, and let the others perish.  That is certainly one way to look at the exodus of businesses from Amherst’s downtown.  A hands-off, market-driven approach will result in the most sustainable businesses, and to do otherwise is not in the long-term best interests of the town.  Yet a Darwinian approach may yield a town filled with businesses whose fitness is an illusion.  Malls suggest that those businesses best positioned to survive tend to have the economic power of national chains behind them, but they thrive at the cost of local dollars and local control, and they will drain local flavor and replace it with national homogeneity and lack of choice.

The promise of revitalization from mixed-use buildings has proven thus far to be an empty one.  The vulnerability of a monoculture is now clear.  And despite people’s nostalgia and desire for the return of a grocery and hardware store, it is unlikely we will once again have the downtowns that many of us remember from the 1950s and 1960s.  A Darwinian approach seems destined to produce a downtown that is decidedly not what most residents of Amherst desire or envision.  What, then, is the solution to the decline of Amherst’s downtown?

Residents have repeatedly voiced their vision of what they would like the downtown to look like.  Others have judged such a vision to be unrealistic, and have provided all the reasons why it cannot happen.  Perhaps we should take the approach of asking what we need to do to say why, and then how, this vision can happen.  If we continue to be distracted by the obstacle in front of us, rather than see the potential future that lies beyond it, that may be all that we can see.  This is not to say that such questions will be easy ones, and their answers will certainly not be easy.  There are realities on the ground that must be anticipated, and there must be a realization that no matter how carefully we plan, factors beyond our control will come into play, and we must have the flexibility and skill to respond to them.

We now recognize clearly what we lose with agribusiness; perhaps we should take the same approach with retail.  Small businesses that grow organically in their own home soil are those that will ultimately nourish and be nourished by their own communities.  Perhaps they will not be round and red and perfect, like tomatoes that come to us in winter from thousands of miles away, but they will be ours, and their flavor will be sweet and authentic.  The choice, and the work, is ours, is it not?     

Denise Barberet

Denise Barberet is a former member of the Planning Board, a long-time member of Town Meeting, and a 30-year resident of Amherst.  She is also a direct descendant of the Parsons family of Northampton.

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